Heden was taunting a colleague, forced by gusts of 85 mph to do the crawl of shame back to the door of the building, when he found himself suddenly in the same predicament.
He was prepared for freezing temperatures – stuffed inside layers of long underwear, synthetic pants, shirts, an insulated jacket, a wind parka, snow pants, mountaineering boots, balaclava and hat. What he wasn’t ready for was the wind.
As his ski goggles blew off his head, he clutched his crumpled glasses and braced himself for the slow-motion move against the rip tide of howling air.
“I was really questioning if I could make it back at that point,” Heden said. “There was a feeling of helplessness that I wasn’t expecting. I’m being blown and I saw my son struggling. . . . I wasn’t afraid, but I was concerned. I had no control.”
Heden had ventured to the summit of Mount Washington to celebrate his son Ryan’s 14th birthday with the observatory’s EduTrip, a $459 overnight excursion to the “home of the world’s worst weather.” The program was a two-day exploration of the mountain summit: a snow tractor ride up the Auto Road, a stay at the non-profit weather observatory, classes, home-cooked meals and frequent trips outside to experience one of the harshest winter environments on the planet.
The 85-mph gusts and freezing temperatures, while tame for Mount Washington, were just what the participants hoped for. In 1934, the highest surface wind speed on Earth was recorded here – 231 mph – far exceeding even the speed of a Category 5 hurricane, which tops out at 156 mph. This February, the observatory staff spent 22 days in hurricane-force winds.
The tough conditions belie the fact that at 6,288 feet, Mount Washington’s peak is really not that tall. In fact, it’s not even the highest summit in the east. By contrast, Pikes Peak, a middle-sized mountain in Colorado, the symbol of the gold rush and the most-visited mountain in North America, stands at 14,110 feet. But because of a convergence of geographical features, including the topography, orientation and rise of the Presidential range, the melding of North American storm tracks and low-pressure ocean systems, winds and weather are pumped straight to the summit.
Since 1849, more than 130 people have died on or around the mountain.
The long road up
It was warm at the base of Mount Washington as six EduTrippers and instructors boarded the snow tractor – so warm the snow melted into a blinding fog. The layers of clothing and preparation for disaster seemed out of place at the bottom, with the valley bathed in the early rays of spring. It soon became clear, however, that the weather at the top was a fickle and unpredictable foe.
Driver Pete Roberts, 70, has taken hundreds of trips up Mount Washington, but the day’s journey, while safe, he said, was one of the worst. Visibility along the Auto Road was minimal. The mountains were obscured in a thick haze. Entire buildings, trees and rocks disappeared beneath the fog. If someone stepped off a mountain path, he might never find his way back. Balmy temperatures had also turned the snow to slush in hidden rivers of ooze, difficult to see and avoid. Nearly two miles from the top, the vehicle sank in. Roberts revved the motor and narrowly avoided being stuck.
“I didn’t think we were going to make it for a minute,” he said.
There’s not much wiggle room on the Auto Road, especially in the winter when drifting snow thins the road and makes driving and plowing difficult. Even this year, with less-than-average snowfall, the snow tractor’s rims can hang over the road’s ledge; at times it was a straight drop into the valley below. It’s so dramatic, in fact, that parts of the road have even acquired their own folk names: “Oh, my God, look out” and “Mother-in-law’s Outlook.” The 7.6-mile trip to the top took about two hours.
Organizers require participants be in excellent physical condition and suited up for adventure. In case of emergency, they must be ready and equipped to hike to safety. This group was a resilient sort – runners, winter mountaineers, hang gliders, skiers, sailors and lovers of the great outdoors.
Above and below
It’s quiet inside the state park visitors center at the top of the mountain. In the summer, the building bustles, crammed with tourists. But in the winter, only a few hundred hearty souls make it to the top. Vacant tables, framed by windows, look out over the summit with an air of chilly otherworldliness – a haunting picture streaked in white ice and shifting fog. It is like being alone on the moon.
As the temperatures dropped from the high 30s to the single digits, fog turned to rime ice and the windows clouded over – blocking the views outside. Participants headed down the long metal stairs under the observatory to the staff living quarters and were greeted by Nin, the resident cat. After a cup of warm coffee, they were briefed on the rules, most importantly on the use of water.
Because the leech fields freeze in the winter, staffers are allowed only one shower a week, and everyone must observe the bathroom motto, “If it’s brown, flush it down. If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”
With that in mind and a tour of the facility under their belts, it was time for class. Appalachian Mountain Club cartographer Larry Garland blew up a globe while author-historian John Mudge covered the conference room table with maps. Every EduTrip has an educational theme and this one was Mapping Mount Washington. Other trip topics include ecology, mountain climatology, global climate change, geology and alpine photography.
The observatory has been a popular place this year, with a host of media outlets clamoring to have a look. The CBS Early Show, Time magazine, National Geographic, the Outdoor Life Network and the Weather Channel have all been up to visit.
The young, four-person staff seems at ease with the attention. After all, they are already minor weather celebrities for their morning forecasts and, recently, their widely seen YouTube video, in which boiling water, thrown into the air, is turned to snow by -34.8 degree temperatures – to the sound of rock music. Their official sponsor, L.L. Bean, supplies them with outdoor gear and has featured the summit on national advertising campaigns.
Observatory staff members have one of the more unusual jobs on the planet. The crew spends 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, watching and recording the weather yearround. On good days, they have their own winter park with breathtaking vistas and can snowboard or hike outside. Every other week they rotate and go down the mountain for a more normal life.
During the evening wine and cheese break, on comfy couches in their bunker-style living quarters below the observatory, staffers admitted to being a bit obsessed with the weather. They talked about whether or not the National Weather Service was overshooting warnings of an impending snowstorm.
Meteorologist Ryan Knapp, 26, whose observatory profile says he used to give weather reports to his school ski club, said that a storm is just like a big fish that you are dying to reel in. There was even “shift envy” when one set of observers got “all the good weather,” complained Alan Metcalf, a summit intern, on the observatory website. Unlike New Hampshire’s snow birds who head south for the winter, “good weather” for the staff means getting slammed with the extremes. They enjoy it.
Rene Pollrerich, 25, a visiting German researcher, decided to use an infrared camera to test how quickly his body would lose heat in -30 degree temperatures – so he stood outside in his shorts. It was an experiment that didn’t last long.
Current researchers form the latest in a long line of scientists who have tracked Mount Washington’s extremes. In 1871, the U.S. Signal Corps began observations here in a building lashed to the ground by chains, the first weather station of its kind in the world.
In 1932, the Mount Washington Observatory was founded. The constant observations have culminated in an invaluable record of climatic change and a litmus test for global warming.
On this night though, before EduTrip participants headed to their bunk rooms, stories moved away from scientific calculations to tales of the human toll of the mountain. As visiting German researcher Hyun-Ung Lee, 26, moaned the groaning sound of the wind, his colleague Pollrerich repeated an oft-told tale of observatory ghosts.
“The voices came from right where you are going to be sleeping,” he began.
Voices, it turns out, of two climbers who made it to the top but never made it back down.
Overnight the winds died and the clouds cleared off the surrounding mountains. As the sun rose blue and orange and pink, Heden again found himself on the observatory deck, where he struggled on his knees to the door the day before.
For the first time, without flying snow, obscuring clouds, deadening winds or blinding fog, he looked back.
Heden laughed; for all of his struggles up the floor, he realized he was only footsteps away from the observatory door.
The flighty weather gods, in their beauty and unpredictability, had chosen to bestow a calm, clear day for
participants who decided to walk part of the way down the now-frozen Auto Road. The storm expected for that evening held off, to the disappointment of some, seduced by the mountain and the hope of getting snowed in.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Heden said later.
At the bottom, Mount Washington looming overhead, layers were stripped off, the adventure completed a bit wistfully.
“This is New England, where winter never seems to die,” Metcalf wrote, “nor do we want it to.”
The Mount Washington Observatory offers EduTrips year-round. For more information, visit their website at mountwashington.org/
She had heard that the American army doctors were coming. And so she waited.
The temperature rose to 115 degrees. Buses dropped off patients dressed in party clothes and flip-flops. They joined the line.
And still, Vasquez waited.
By late morning, it was finally her turn to talk to the medical team. She was weighed, then questioned.
“What types of problems are you having?” a translator asked in Spanish.
“I can’t see very well,” she said. “And sometimes I have aches.”
Her problems were noted, and she moved through the line to see a doctor.
Vasquez was among more than 5,000 patients the New Hampshire National Guard Medical Command treated during a medical readiness exercise in rural El Salvador in late April. Stories like hers were central to the team’s experience.
“You know what’s amazing?” asked 1st Lt. Jim Piro, 46, a nurse from New Boston. “For people to spend hours waiting in the hot sun for Tylenol and Motrin and things that we can just go to the store and buy at home. People are coming in with bare feet and mud and waiting. It chokes me up.”
At a time when New Hampshire soldiers are serving and dying in controversial missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, the medical command was on a peaceful goodwill trip. Its goals were simple and straightforward: to help people in a poor, rural environment, to train for future missions, to work together as a group and to strengthen ties with El Salvador.
Along with the satisfaction of helping thousands of people with medical needs great and small came the frustration of knowing that some of their fixes were temporary – and that some patients who needed help most desperately were beyond their reach.
The work was hard, and the hours were long.
“You have to have a very selfless attitude – the kind of person that feels that doing their job is more important than enjoying a high quality of life while they’re out here,” said Sgt. Jen LaClaire of Concord.
‘Level one’ care
The medical team met Vasquez and her neighbors in Chilanga, a brightly painted town with cobbled streets surrounded by ancient volcanic hills. Their two-week mission had already taken them through Tablon, Quatajiagua and Chapeltique. This was the fourth and final destination for the doctors, dentists, nurses and other medical personnel.
Their mission: “level one” care – medical and dental screenings and treatment of basic concerns.
“We can’t do any major surgeries or anything serious, but we can identify issues, provide some prescription drugs and refer treatment to hospitals as needed,” said Capt. Mike Moranti, 32, of Manchester.
The 30-member team pulled 446 teeth, fitted 241 pairs of eyeglasses, treated thousands of aches and pains, and saw, among other things, a goiter the size of a cantaloupe, an infected toenail and injuries from an attempted suicide.
“We can kind of be like a Doctors Without Borders,” said Moranti, the medical command operations officer. “Most medical professionals want to help people, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The group’s primary function is to support the National Guard at home.
Members provide medical screenings for soldiers and track those who are deploying or returning from active duty. They can be deployed themselves but are generally sent overseas individually, attached to other units.
“This gave us an opportunity to train as a group . . . doing a mission together, getting used to wearing the uniform, sleeping in tents and stuff like that – in a more relaxed atmosphere than going straight to Iraq and not knowing anybody and not even knowing how to put your Kevlar on,” Moranti said.
Many members have done tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Some, like LaClaire, 34, a former Russian linguist for the Navy, have never been on a field mission.
“This is a completely different universe,” said LaClaire, a patient administration sergeant. “I was not aware of just how much I was taking for granted. Until you live the experience and see people face to face, you don’t know how much luxury you have had in your life.”
Base camp basics
For nearly two weeks, the team slept co-ed style in canvas tents on an old runway in the Morazon province, in the northwest corner of El Salvador.
They rose before dawn to hearty egg-and-meat breakfasts shipped in boxes from the United States, served cafeteria-style in a trailer and eaten in the open air. For lunch, they picked up Meals Ready to Eat or Salvadoran pupusas, fried cornmeal tortillas filled with beans, cheese or pork. They drank plenty of water.
Surrounded by razor wire and filled with heavy equipment, the base camp was shipped from the United States in pieces for the Army’s New Horizons exercise.
There were Humvees, trailers for a mess hall, showers, generators, tents and a gargantuan washer and dryer system, all to support humanitarian objectives, which included building schools, wells and clinics and running medical readiness exercises.
The Army’s work was focused near former rebel territory, pieces of which were once held by a former guerrilla group, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. The area is also home to the city of El Mozote, where, in 1981, Salvadoran soldiers killed an estimated 900 civilians in an anti-guerrilla campaign, one of the worst massacres in Latin American history.
The country’s civil war has passed, and today, El Salvador, roughly the size of Massachusetts, is home to more than 6 million people.
Agriculture is an important industry, but recently there has been a decline in the export of coffee and a rise in clothing manufacturing. According to embassy personnel, about 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product comes from money that people working in the United States send back to their families.
Rashes, dizziness, foot pain
The Chilanga medical mission was set up in an elementary school, an open-air cement block building brightly painted in blue and white, the national colors.
Piro sat at an intake table; next to him was a Salvadoran Army interpreter translating medical complaints. Piro held a cheat sheet of ailments listed in Spanish – rash, dizziness, foot pain, low appetite, fever, fungus, sweating, stomach ache, vomiting, chicken pox. By Day 8, he knew most of them by heart.
First Lt. Lezli Clark, a nurse from Rochester, worked next to Piro, shuttling people through the line. Last year, Clark won the Army Nurse Corps excellence award for her work with soldiers returning from war.
She and Piro have both been part of a team of New Hampshire soldiers in charge of case management for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They tracked injuries and managed care for nearly 400 people. When soldiers came home, Clark gave them her cell phone number.
“I’m a nurse,” she said. “That’s what nurses do.”
Inside the medical area, Capt. Jen Moranti, 30, a nurse from Manchester, gave out hundreds of bags of pills, took temperatures and blood pressure and saw people with aches and pains, lice and dehydration.
“You want to do so much for them,” Moranti said, “but you can really only do so much without follow-up care.”
Lt. Col. Robin DeLeon, 41, a doctor from Boise, Idaho, called a group over to listen to a young girl’s heart. Instead of the normal glub, glub, her heart whooshed – a sign of trouble.
DeLeon told the family she needed to go to the hospital. Her condition would require a more serious operation than the mission could handle.
Situations like that were not easy for the team. The short duration of the trip, the extent of the need and the level of care they were able to provide could be frustrating.
“Not being able to do the things that I can do back home is hard,” said Lt. Col. Susan Caprio, 59, a nurse practitioner from Goffstown.
Chronic disease was the most difficult problem she wrestled with.
“I’m worried about the women (having a stroke),” she said. “We tell them to go to the clinic, but if they could do that, they wouldn’t have come here.”
While the team treated and bandaged and shared smiles with people again and again, it was the people they couldn’t help that some remembered most.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said LaClaire.
The team had been up since around 5:30 a.m. At the end of the day, as members waited to get on the buses in the stifling heat, the soldiers’ sleeves were rolled down to show solidarity with the troops in Iraq.
“I’m tired. It’s hot. It would be nice to sleep in a bed again,” said Caprio.
‘Dentists can be fun’
Inside the dental room, a four member team prepared for an extraction – with a little levity.
“Dentists can be fun,” said Col. Ralph Ergas, 46, a pediatric specialist from Manchester.
Maj. Patrick Racz, 38, a dentist from Bristol, added, “Yesterday, we were joking about how we don’t have repeat customers, and then we had a woman come back for more.”
A line outside the door attested to the popularity of their services. Roborto Porg, 55, asked Ergas to remove eight teeth so he could be fitted for partials. After anesthetic, Porg sat stoically, calloused hands folded on his lap, as his teeth were pulled one by one.
“Let’s say he goes to the clinic,” said Ergas. “He pays his bus fare and he misses work, which costs him money.” Local dentists charge $5 a tooth to be pulled, Ergas said; having eight pulled could cost nearly a month’s salary.
“That’s a big deal to him,” said Ergas.
As the last tooth for the day was removed, Porg stood, shook Ergas’s hand and said, “Gracias.”
“They have so much disease here that they have a higher pain tolerance and don’t take as much anesthetic,” Ergas said.
Ergas learned how to say, “no crying” in Spanish – “no llores” – and when he said it to children, the crying stopped.
“They don’t need as much coddling,” Ergas said. “The Salvadoran children are a little more independent (than their American counterparts). They are tougher, and they listen to their parents.”
They also had more tooth decay.
The dental team saw case after case of baby bottle tooth decay, a condition that destroys a child’s upper front teeth because of prolonged contact with sugary liquids.
A fine line
Members of a military medical team walk a fine line between soldiering and healing. In fact, the Geneva Convention gives them their own category in the rules of war. Medical and religious personnel are considered noncombatants even though they wear uniforms and can carry small arms.
That doesn’t mean they haven’t tasted danger.
While riding the buses home to the Salvadoran base camp one night, fireworks exploded in the roadway ahead of the team.
“My heart stopped,” said Staff Sgt. Roy Lowes, 44, a medic from Wolfeboro who spent time in Afghanistan advising a medical company.
Loud noises surprise him and take him back to his tour.
“In Afghanistan, I had to straddle both positions,” he said. “I’m a pretty compassionate person, but at the same time, you have to watch your ass.”
What the Americans learned in El Salvador about teamwork and sacrifice will quickly be put to the test halfway around the world. The youngest member of the group, Pfc. Ashley Philibert, 19, of Weare will leave for Iraq this summer. Philibert, who joined the Army at 17, describes her time in El Salvador as “awesome.” She knows Iraq, where she will be working in security rather than dentistry, will be tougher.
“Normally I’m very cautious, but lately, I’ve been like this is my only opportunity to do this,” she said.
“When else am I going to have a chance to come help people?”
Philibert volunteered for the tour in Iraq. She’s excited, but when she watches the news, she’s scared too.
“I have no idea what to expect.”
Making life better
Inside the eye exam room, Rebecca Calles, 25, the first female pilot in the Salvadoran Air Force, worked alongside Senior Airman Lindsay Lassonde, 21, of Rochester, helping fit residents with eyeglasses.
Petronilo Lopez, 81, had such poor vision he couldn’t read any letters on the chart in front of him.
“Can you see this?” Calles asked in Spanish.
“No,” he answered.
“How about this?” she asked again.
Lassonde sighed. Hundreds of people needed glasses. There was only one Lassonde.
The team told about a young boy who came in. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t read because he couldn’t see.
Groups had donated glasses for the trip, but there were not enough exact prescriptions to go around.
Lassonde did the best she could. When she was through, amid hugs and handshakes, her Salvadoran patients smiled and said, “Gracias, gracias, gracias.”
“I can’t get them to see 100 percent, and I can’t fix all their problems, but I can help them,” she said. “And to see their gratitude makes it all worthwhile.”
LaClaire said later: “It’s the most personally satisfying thing that I’ve ever done – because you know what you are doing is making a difference.“It’s not a symbol. You are really making their quality of life better.”
Steve Cratty, 37, was still wearing his hospital ID bracelet as he and the other members of “The Pennsylvania 4” sloughed their way against the current on the slimy, rocky Upper Ammonoosuc River in New Hampshire.
The team of four through-paddlers, on a quest to conquer the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, had been on the water for several weeks when Cratty fell and broke two ribs on the rocks. It was a small setback in a string of misfortune that included wrapping their canoe around a boulder, a week of nonstop rain and food poisoning.
“In it to win it” had become the team motto by the time they reached this midpoint through New Hampshire. And still, what they really wanted to talk about was the people they met on the journey and the places they’d seen.
“Being out here is probably changing my thoughts on life,” said Brad Kohler, 30, of Pittsburgh, Pa. “Living in the city makes me doubt people. I used to think that there were only a few good people out there, but now I think there are millions.”
The crew can’t remember what day of the week it is, but they all remember the couple in a fishing boat who led them during a lightning storm to their camp where they made them a fire and offered them hot food.
“They didn’t know us from nothing. We could have been serial killers,” Kohler said.
Long Distance Trail
Not everyone who travels the Northern Forest Canoe Trail needs to experience such extremes. The path, which traces Native American trade routes through New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire and Maine, has many shorter, quieter sections.
Finished in the spring of 2006, the trail consists of a string of interconnected rivers and lakes linked by portages (which require the canoe to be carried) from one waterway to the next. Sometimes called the Appalachian Trail for canoeists, it passes through some of the most renowned waters of the East, including Lake Champlain and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
The trail is divided into 13 mapped sections, which include campsites, trail signs, local information and access points. To complete the entire journey, paddlers must possess a variety of skills. They must be able to travel upstream by poling, a technique that uses a long, usually wooden, setting pole to push the boat forward against the current. They also must have the endurance to portage 55 miles, carrying the canoe up and around obstructions. Paddlers must descend rapids up to a class IV, which is defined by the Safety Code of American Whitewater as “Advanced. Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water.” They also must fight through large bodies of water where wind and waves batter their small crafts.
Unlike hiking however, the trail is not always considered backcountry as it passes both developed and natural areas. In some areas paddlers can canoe from inn to inn.
Typically, people who want to paddle the length of the trail begin in the west and move toward Maine. In that direction, the New Hampshire section becomes tricky. The four bodies of water that make up the more than 72 miles of the trail that cross the state – the Connecticut, the Androscoggin, the Upper Ammonoosuc and Lake Umbagog – flow in different directions. (For shorter trips, section paddling in the direction of the current can make things more enjoyable.) But taken piece by piece, each of the New Hampshire waterways has its own character and adventure to offer.
Connecticut River Section
The largest river in New England, the Connecticut curves its way along an ancient tract. Wide and meandering, sandy beaches grace its oxbow loops. Above its banks rise fertile agricultural valleys. In the distance, mountains and hills emerge.
It’s the kind of river that defines a “float trip,” as its gentle, clear current makes for a leisurely day. On Sunday, it’s also the kind of river that brings out locals and their coolers.
Five boats, full of good-natured North Stratford natives, wind their way down the river on a lazy afternoon. They argue and joke about who can catch more fish. Challenges are issued. Taunts are hurled. Everybody knows everybody. They speculate that the largest graduating class in town was 25 people. Then, at a nondescript bend in the river, they raise their drinks to salute a friend who died there. Their arrival at the abandoned railroad trestle is ritualistic. Several people disembark onto the island of driftwood and stone to light debris on fire.
Past another bend, David Curtis, 42, a teacher from Burlington, Vt., fights his way upstream like Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. His face is stubbly, but there is a smile below his Green Mountain Club hat.
Curtis decided to paddle the New Hampshire and Vermont sections of the trail a week into his summer vacation. “I haven’t been in a canoe since high school,” Curtis says. “My only preparation for canoeing was a book, something like Canoeing in the Wild by some master canoeist who has me doing the c-stroke.” (The stroke traces the letter “c” underwater and keeps the solo canoeist moving forward in a straight line. It’s easier said than done.)
He admits to a penchant for checking things off a list. (He’s also working to finish the Long Trail, a 270-mile hiking trail that runs the length of Vermont.) In his boat is a large, old gardening cart for portages, an external frame pack, dry bags, food (kale, noodles, carrots) and a fishing rod. He’s already done one 3.8-mile portage from the Androscoggin to the Upper Ammonoosuc by himself. The road is hilly, windy and narrow. He’s feeling cranky and over-packed.
Some of the portages are rough. Steep banks greet paddlers trying to make their way around dams or carrying their canoes to the next waterway. Supplies must be unloaded, moved up and down, then reloaded while the canoeist scrambles through thorny bushes with wet shoes, mosquitoes feasting on fleshy legs.
Curtis is doing the trip all by himself and says he feels more solitude in the water than on land.
“When you are hiking, even if you are alone on the trail, you are running into somebody,” Curtis says. “But here you are all alone.”
Umbagog Lake and Androscoggin River Section
Umbagog Lake is a destination in itself. Wide, shallow and protected, it’s more than 10 miles long. The haunting call of the loon echoes from its shores.
Then as the waterway approaches Errol, the peace is interrupted. Here, the Androscoggin River begins with menace. Trees, staked like spears along the banks, point at the sky and a set of Class III rapids await. Once a superhighway for the logging industry, the river now serves a variety of recreational purposes.
Coming through the crashing water, Kay Henry, the founding president of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, executes a perfect eddy turn near the boat ramp with Todd Papianou, owner of Northern Waters Outfitters in Errol. In whitewater boating, an eddy turn is used to extricate the boat from the current and halt its downstream motion. It’s an advanced maneuver. They make it look easy.
Henry and her husband, Rob Center, former chief executives of Mad River Canoe, formed the nonprofit NFCT in 2000 to develop and manage the trail. It was first envisioned in the late 1970s by a trio of men interested in tracing Native American routes through New England. More than 30 years later, the trail officially opened.
“From a historical perspective, rivers were really what joined the community,” Henry says. Today, she hopes that communities will embrace the idea of a water trail as both a recreational/cultural outlet and an economic driver.
The vision is that the trail becomes part of the fabric of the northern forest communities, encouraging conservation and keeping the water pristine.
The New Hampshire river section is a cultural byway to different chapters of the region’s past. It runs next to both Brunswick Springs, an Abenaki area used for its purported healing powers, and the town of Stark, where a former World War II German prisoner of war camp was located.
Papianou’s business and other local country stores and campgrounds may also benefit from an increase in river tourism. Some of them don’t even know it yet.
Pam Feldhouse at the Cedar Pond Campground near Milan didn’t realize that her campground was central on NFCT map No. 7 and smack dab in the middle of a tough 3.8-mile portage on Route 110A between the Androscoggin and Upper Ammonoosuc River. It was advertising, she says, that she didn’t even have to pay for.
As the whitewater of Errol fades off into the Pontook Reservoir, remnants of logging days sit neatly below the water. In the 1930s, river drivers worked from large boats called “bateau,” directing logs down the chutes of this river. Stone islands, underwater timbers, and coils of metal rope sunken to the bottom are the only remnants. Soon though, the river is churned up once again by the power of the Pontook Dam. Class II and III rapids follow rocky and fast.
Upper Ammonoosuc River Section
The slender and shallow Upper Ammonoosuc River snakes its way through the heart of northern New Hampshire. It’s the smallest and least traveled of the rivers. Low water levels in late summer cause many of the rapids to become a minefield of boulders difficult to navigate – but also create an assurance of isolation.
The winding stream abounds with wildlife. A young moose bathes in a deep eddy, shaking flies off his growing antlers. He lumbers to the shore, knees bending backward awkwardly. It is quiet.
Northern Forest Canoe Trail campsites along all the rivers are new and relatively unused. They offer designated places to stop and camp for the night. In the morning, it rains fog, leaving a layer of condensation on tent roofs. Campers sleep under thick river mist, while canoes sit idle.
It’s possible to kayak the trail, but canoes, with their extra storage capacity, provide a more versatile way of completing it.
“A canoe is a vehicle to go exploring with,” Henry says.
In a way, the trail is an ode to the transportation of the past. Long before roads were built through the thick North Woods, Native Americans navigated through a series of well-known river systems in traditional canoes.
Although the exploration of uncharted territory might be complete, the essence of the journey remains. There is a beginning and an ending, and in between, teamwork is paramount. The power of the paddler in the bow must be matched by the skill and guidance of the paddler in the stern. It’s the partnership involved in canoeing, Henry says, that makes it so satisfying.
For “The Pennsylvania 4,” teamwork seems to move them along the trail. In their blog from Saturday, July 28, they write “WE ALL GOT TO SHOWER TODAY!!! Today was a good day for all of us, but I’m sure that Sara (Maits) enjoyed today the most. She no longer has to hang around three smelly guys all day. Today was our third shower of the trip. After our showers, we got to line up our canoes and walk through the water most of the day.”
A few days later, they write, “We were very excited about finally reaching Maine. We took advantage of the emotional high and paddled 20 miles.”
In the latest report, dated Wednesday, Aug. 15, the group writes, “The last couple of days have been rough. I can now see why so many paddlers average less than 15 miles per day. Lake Champlain seems like it happened so long ago. The good news is that we have less than 100 miles to go. Once we finish, we will start planning our trip for next summer.”
For Steve Cratty and Sara Maits, two of “The Pennsylvania 4,” the teamwork that keeps them on schedule is vital. Their goal: make it to Fort Kent, Maine, by Aug. 25. If they arrive in one piece, there will be a bridal shower, their own, to attend.
In April 1978, flames began licking the rare books in the basement of Chaplin Library. A fire—the second on campus that year—was alight. As smoke rose through the joints of the 1907 structure, leaking from the windows above, the alarm was raised. By the faint last light of day, the Norwich Student Fire Brigade sprang into action.
By the time Jim O’Brien ’79 arrived on the scene, smoke clouded the hallways, making it impossible to enter without oxygen tanks. Brigade Fire Chief Ken Morton ’78 (now fire chief of Williston, Vt.) remembers working frantically to set up the portable ponds as tanker trucks rolled onto the UP.
Finally a hose line was established, and several NU cadets entered the building. As they moved cautiously down into the basement, they saw a blur—a shadowy figure dressed in 19th-century breeches and a Hussar coat—valiantly attempting to bat out the flames with his overcoat. Then, in the blink of an eye, he disappeared.
Was it Captain Alden Partridge back from the grave to save his beloved university? Or was it one of the many nameless ghosts rumored to haunt his venerable institution? Is it fact or is it fiction? Or possibly a little of both?
A university with a history that goes back nearly 200 years harbors an abundance of shadowy corners to investigate, legendary figures to unearth, and clandestine organizations to explore. Students of all generations find themselves wondering about the cadets who lived on the hill of yore. And many claim to have been visited by a spirit or two from the past.
“Something happens after the Dog River Run. You’ve been baptized and all of sudden you really dig Norwich history and want to know its secrets,” says Randall Miller ’93, author of the recently self-published book, Norwich Matters.
Norwich University librarians are quick to point out that one of the most popular searches in the archives is the topic of ghosts. And there is no shortage of material to pore over. Personal accounts of paranormal activity on the Hill abound—unexplained rapping on walls and doors, footsteps in empty hallways, and, out of nowhere, sudden cold drafts. Disembodied spirits have been “seen” marching in step with cadets, peering out from windows, even levitating Christmas trees.
Or so they say …
Miller defines Norwich rumor as “information shared as a matter of historical record, often supported by crystal-clear memories of events that never happened.”
The incidents told here may just be Norwich rumor, or they may be more than that. But whether they truly took place or exist only in people’s minds, they remain an integral part of Norwich lore—as real today as mortar between the bricks of buildings that no longer cast their shadows on the Hill.
Throughout the University’s long and storied past, many Norwich souls have been taken prematurely. On October 26, 1821, the Norwich Corps of Cadets lined up for the funeral of Cadet Thomas Hurlbut, the first student to die at the “Academy.” Reverend Rufus William Bailey, the school’s first chaplain, delivered Hurlbut’s eulogy at the parish church in Norwich, Vt. Under the white steeple, its Paul Revere bell gleaming, a somber procession formed.
Carefully organized and scripted by Partridge himself, the procession wound through town, ending at the young man’s grave. As cadets, professors, militia, and townspeople solemnly walked down the street, the band played a “dead march.” The dirge continued as the body was lowered deep into the earth and honored with the firing of three volleys.
History books mention three cadets dying in the early years: the second, Ralph A. Wikoff at only 19 years old, caused the Corps to wear black crepe on their arms and draw up resolutions upon his death.
Do young Hurlbut and Wikoff continue to march, drill, and rise at dawn to the call of reveille? Is it possible that they and other cadets who passed through Norwich’s gates in life still frequent the familiar stomping grounds of their youth?
Whether perishing in defense of country in one of its many wars, succumbing to illness (the 1918 influenza epidemic took five), dying from sports-related injuries (football claimed two in 1913), accidents (beloved Cadet Henry Way cut his finger in 1887 and developed tetanus), or from self-inflicted injury, is it too far-fetched to suppose that these once vibrant youths remain among us? Do they still feel that this is where they belong?
In 2003 and 2006, John Zaffis from the Paranormal Research Society of New England visited Norwich to speak about his ghost-hunting career and to search for spirits. On both occasions he toured the campus to sense the energy in various buildings. What he found was “activity”—lots of it. He felt it on the top floor of Dewey, where he sensed “two spirits that had been killed.” He felt it in Ransom, Hawkins, and Goodyear. And he felt it in the basement of Alumni Hall.
Built in 1905, Alumni Hall is the oldest building still extant on campus. (Dewey was erected in 1902 but was rebuilt in 1925 following a fire.) The granddaddy of Norwich buildings, Alumni has spawned its fair share of haunting tales—but none so infamous as the “bricked-off room.”
There is hardly an alumnus alive today that hasn’t heard the tale of a young cadet who supposedly hung himself from his wardrobe in a windowless room on the south end of the basement. As the story goes, his brother came to Norwich the following year, was given the same room, and he too hung himself.
The hangings were viewed as tragic but unrelated coincidences until (relates Jeff McGowan ’96, who heard the tale from an older alum) one fateful day, when a cadet walked into the same basement room and saw his buddy standing on a chair getting ready to hang himself. Quickly a group gathered round to stop him. As they talked him down off the chair, they asked, “Why?” He replied, “The people in the mirror told me to do it.” The cadet then explained that the woebegone victims had each appeared in the mirror, coaxing him to join them.
Apparently, the administration at the time was so disturbed by this incident that they sealed off the room permanently, and from that day forward it has never been used.
Today if you knock on the east wall in the basement of Alumni, you can hear the echo of an open space where a door once was. Behind it, two rooms have been joined together to house the dorm’s heating, electrical, and plumbing facilities.
But despite the sealing off of the cursed room, custodian Todd LaValley says creepy things still go on there. Former residents recount tales of disembodied voices, mysterious knocking on doors, and loud banging in bathroom stalls. And if you talk to the students who live there today, they will tell you the ghosts are still around.
Perhaps from the beginning a pall was cast over the building.
At Alumni Hall’s dedication in 1906, the keynote speaker was Colonel Henry Oakes Kent, an 1854 graduate, Civil War veteran, longtime NU trustee, poet, and former member of Norwich’s earliest secret society, the University Regulators. Begun in 1852, the cloaked and hooded group was created to maintain student discipline and “regulate” the University. They achieved this by enforcing strict standards of behavior among the cadets, using whatever means they deemed appropriate.
The Regulators went “underground” in 1856 when Theta Chi fraternity was founded by two former Regulators: Arthur Chase ’56 and Frederick Freeman ’57. Some say that when Alumni Hall was being constructed, Colonel Kent, in a symbolic gesture, placed relics from the Regulators in the foundation of the building to preserve for future generations.
Another building purported to harbor spirits is Chaplin Hall, now home to the School of Art & Architecture. Financed by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the brick and stone edifice opened in 1907 as Carnegie Library.
In the early days, students were greeted by a life-sized oil painting of women serving tea, above a blazing fireplace. Gentlemanly cadets sat in leather armchairs in the main reading room, studying, smoking, and speaking in hushed whispers. The basement, on the other hand, was a dark, dusty tomb. It is here that alumni and staff witnessed books flying off shelves, heard the eerie echoes of footsteps, and saw lights flicking on after the building was closed.
Or so they say …
One often-told ghost story is of a librarian who repeatedly found a book lying open on the circulation table as if someone were in the middle of reading it. Each night she would put the book away, and each morning it would reappear—open to a page further along in the text. Another version of the story claims how the book, locked inside a glass case, had pages that would mysteriously “turn” on their own.
Ann Turner worked in the library for 25 years, most of them as head librarian until she was granted emeritus status in 1990. Although Turner has never refuted the rumors of hauntings (because she believes in good fun), she herself never experienced the sensations that her fellow librarian Margaret Partlow. Partlow routinely reported hearing voices and moaning, and felt the coldness in the air.
“She firmly believed,” says Turner.
So do many others who have seen a shadowy figure staring out onto the UP from a window above the building’s arched entryway.
Who is that specter dressed in 19th-century garb? Some wonder if it could be the illustrious Alonzo Jackman, Class of 1836, longtime member of the faculty, and the man for whom Jackman Hall is named.
General Jackman briefly worked as a librarian when the University was still located on the Norwich, Vt., campus. Inventor of the ocean telegraph and a United States Army general who trained dozens of Civil War officers, Jackman taught mathematics, natural philosophy, and civil engineering at the University until his death in 1879. On that day as he stood at his window, dressed in uniform, “he suddenly fell dead, dropped like a soldier at his post,” according to William Arba Ellis’s History of Norwich University.
Jackman was not one to be absent from the University—ever. Some conjecture he still isn’t—even now.
So great was the respect of Norwich librarians for whomever was haunting Chaplin that, in 1993, when the book collection was moved from the old library to the new, they left behind a cart labeled “GHOST” on the last night, so that, in the morning, if the spirit wanted to make the journey to the new library, it would know it was welcome.
Apparently at least one spirit did indeed cross over from the old structure to the new, as a number of ghostly occurrences have taken place in the new library. In 2003, Athletics Administrative Assistant Cathy Diego and Archives Librarian Krista Ainsworth were frantically trying to locate a photograph. The old black-and-white portrait—taken by longtime University photographer Homer Smith—was needed for the Athletics Hall of Fame program, and Diego was convinced it had to be in one of the dozens of archival boxes stored in the basement of the library. After searching in vain for over an hour, Ainsworth spotted Homer Smith’s chair sitting in a dark corner of the room. In desperation she walked over, grabbed the chair, and, invoking the dead man’s spirit, said, “Okay, Homer, we need your help. Where is that photo?” A strange feeling came over the women, and in the next box they opened, lying directly on top, was the very photograph they sought.
DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES
Dorms and libraries are not the only structures that have historically sparked the imagination.
Arguments over the existence of underground tunnels connecting buildings on the UP have been going on for decades. Alumni and students alike swear they exist. Facilities/Operations personnel swear they don’t.
Many of these subterranean rumors harken back to Norwich’s erstwhile secret societies and the tale of a cadet who died as the result of an obligatory beating or an initiation rite gone awry. Even though former society members have been sworn to secrecy, versions of the supposed student’s untimely demise have provided grist for the rumor mill for generations of Norwich students.
His tragic tale takes place at the Norwich of a bygone era. During this period, the “breaking in” of rooks was a common and accepted practice. Yearbooks from the 1920s show upperclassmen sporting masks and wielding paddles, looming menacingly over rooks cowering in their bunks.
According to one version, the ill-fated cadet was taken into the tunnels near Chaplin Hall for initiation into Skull and Swords—one of two secret societies then at Norwich—and died from injuries sustained there. Another possible clue to the existence of the tunnels is the mysterious mention in the 1926 War Whoop of an incident in which the Royal Order of Night Riders—the other secret society—sneak back onto campus via “a means known only to them.”
As for whether tunnels have ever existed, most old-timers concede that between the time old Jackman first opened in 1868 (duly commemorated with full Masonic ceremonies, a parade, and an assembly of 3,000 people) and the first Dodge Hall was built (1892), followed by Dewey Hall ten years later, there were indeed underground passageways connecting at least two of the buildings. However, it is generally accepted that when Jackman and Dodge were demolished to make way for the new Jackman Hall in 1964, the tunnels were filled in.
But this doesn’t explain why what looks like the entrance to a small passageway in the basement of Gerard is cemented over. Nor does it dispel the persistent rumor that one entrance to the tunnels still remains open “somewhere” beneath one of the dorms on the UP, or why to this day students say with absolute certainty that they have been inside them. If tunnels do exist in one form or another, those who know the truth, aren’t talking.
BIDDEN AND UNBIDDEN
Given every generation’s fascination with the occult, it is not surprising that many Norwich students have actually encouraged visits from spirits. Ouija BoardsTM, invented in 1890, are no less popular today than they were a hundred years ago, when students would descend the stairs to the basement of Chaplin Hall to conjure up a good scare. It is documented that the late Bill Wilson ’18, World War I artillery officer and cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was a notable user.
So it was hardly unusual that around Christmastime 1978, David Carter ’80 and four of his buddies decided to hold a séance. Their intent was to make contact with a former cadet who had died several years earlier. They entered the student’s old room in Wilson Hall, joined hands, and attempted to get in touch with his spirit.
After a period of silence, things suddenly started happening. A radio, which was unplugged and held no batteries, began playing; a Christmas stocking hanging on the wall turned upside down; and outside the window, one cadet saw the reflection of a ghostly face staring back at him. Terrified, the students fled the room.
Other spirits have made their existence known in the absence of such beckoning. Reports of being woken from a dead sleep to a feeling of being “held down” in bed in a sort of “night paralysis,” such that they can’t breathe or move, are commonplace.
But not all Norwich spirits manifest a menacing presence. It appears some stick around because this is where they feel most “at home.” (Paranormal experts agree that the unifying characteristic of ghosts is that they are unaware they have died. Stuck between this world and the next, they remain behind to haunt the living.)
A former NU security guard was closing up White Chapel one night when he heard the strains of piano music. By the dim glow of the exit sign he could see the figure of a man seated at the grand piano. The patrolman let his presence be known, but the piano player ignored him. A second time he identified himself. This time, the figure turned his head and asked, “Can I still play?” It was then that the security guard saw he had no face.
THE GUARDIAN OF SABINE FIELD?
Students and staff aren’t the only ones who have experienced paranormal activity on the Hill. In December 2009, NU parent Kristi Sjoholm-Sierchio had left Plumley Armory and was walking past the Sabine Field gates to her car when she sensed someone following her. Turning quickly around, she saw the head and left shoulder of a uniformed female cadet, walking behind her.
Students past and present similarly report being “followed” by a spirit marching in time with their steps near the North entrance to campus. But occasionally the ghost carries out his (or her) watch on horseback, and no wonder, considering the school’s revered cavalry tradition. Tory Decker Hook ’00 remembers crossing the UP one foggy night and hearing the sound of a galloping horse. And several alums from the ’60s recall hearing the whinney of a horse in Alumni Hall.
Could this riderless horse be the steed of Moses Taylor, Jr.—a member of the Class of 1920 loved for his “empathy, sense of humor, bigheartedness, honesty, fearlessness, and loyalty to his men?” Wounded while leading his platoon against the Germans in the trenches of WWI in France, First Lieutenant Taylor later died and was buried at Vigneulles, the local cemetery.
Soon after, his father donated funds to build an indoor riding hall—a welcome asset for a school where horsemanship was a requisite component of military training. But after the army transitioned from cavalry to armor in the 1940s, Moses Taylor Arena was converted into Norwich’s first enclosed hockey rink—only to be demolished and replaced with Kreitzberg Arena in 1998.
The 1951 yearbook is dedicated to the memory of Moses Jr., who “died with his face to the enemy and gave his life to his country.”
Perhaps this young hero, laid to rest on a distant shore, still rides home to Norwich, the beating of his horse’s hooves echoing through the valley. Perhaps he’s come back to remind us of the unstoppable passage of time and our own inevitable mortality. Or perhaps he’s admonishing us to wrap our loved ones close, hold tight to the fleeting moments of our numbered days, and remember to always, always be faithful to the past.
– by Lori Duff
Concord, New Hampshire,
Sunday, June 3d, 185
To the Cadets of N.U.
I sympathize with you in the recent melancholy death
o’ poor George*, and ever bear in lively remembrance,
“The old grey walls, the well known halls, and the cherished
friends of N.U.”
Henry O. Kent
Hearken ye not for the well known tread;
Call ye not after the name of the dead;
Sadden ye not in the wonted room
That he changed for the damps of the chilly land.
No more shall ye greet neath the barrack’s walls;
No more shall awake him the reveille’s call.
The drooping flag and the booming gun,
Telleth for aye that his course is run,
Telleth for aye of a death stroke fast—
Of a shattered sail, of a broken mast—
Of a manly heart and a friendly hand,
That has left forever our earthly band—
Of a form that looks from a realm afar,
Beyond the world’s contentions jar,
On the band that stands as brothers true
Within thy cherished wall, N.U.
*Cadet William George, who died in a hunting accident in 1855.
Cadet Henry Oaks Kent, Class of 1854. He became a colonel and served as a University trustee.
It was his first ocean crossing. He was seven years old—a small, dark figure clad in white against the backdrop of the vast open sea. Behind him, on the Greek Island of Chios, remained his entire family and the only life he had ever known. In front of him, on the western horizon, loomed the inscrutable possibility of America. For 50 days George Musalas Colvocoresses sailed between the old world and the new. It was 1823, and he had no inkling that this first taste of salt air would be a mere prelude to a lifetime bound to the world’s deepest, darkest waters…
George M. Colvocoresses and the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842
Setting Sail – 1838
It was Saturday, August 18, 1838, and passed midshipman Colvocoresses was once again headed to sea. Standing on the deck of the brig Porpoise, a steady breeze ruffled his dark hair. Deeply tanned, his hands hardened, the sturdy 21-year-old watched Norfolk recede into the distance under clear skies and smooth seas. It was an auspicious beginning to an adventure that would consume the next four years of his life.
Christened the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, the six-vessel squadron hoisted anchor 175 years ago with Colvocoresses onboard. It was the golden age of sail, and a fledgling America planned to make its mark on global waters by sponsoring its first international scientific expedition.
With a crew of 346 commanded by the talented but controversial Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the squadron had at least two students from Captain Alden Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific & Military Academy on board: George Colvocoresses, Class of 1831, and First Lieutenant Thomas T. Craven, Class of 1824.
Nicknamed the Ex. Ex. and authorized by an act of Congress, its objective was to “extend the empire of commerce and science” for the young, ambitious nation. Carrying some of the most preeminent artists of the day, their orders were to explore the as yet undiscovered continent of Antarctica, map long-isolated regions of the Pacific, and open up the globe to future trade for the United States.
At the same time they were to collect biological specimens and document the natural world—its creatures, plant life, peoples, cultures, and habitats—a monumental task that would eventually establish the foundation for the Museum of Natural History in the Smithsonian.
It was a daunting undertaking: Ships routinely wrecked on rocky, uncharted shoals; pirates plundered defenseless vessels; and interactions with indigenous populations could be violent and unpredictable. There was indeed great risk—but Congress was confident that the rewards would be equally great, if not greater.
But on that balmy Saturday in 1838, the last expedition to circle the globe using only wind power could not have foreseen the loss of two ships, 28 lives, or the years that stretched like the vast, uncharted sea before them.
Greek Uprising – 1822
Born in 1816 on a small Greek island off the coast of Turkey, George M. Colvocoresses was five years old when his homeland took up arms and revolted against Ottoman rule. As an example to the people, the outraged Sultan ordered his troops to pillage and burn the island, killing the men and taking the women and children as slaves. In the rampage that followed, an estimated 25,000 people were murdered.
Young George and his family fled to the interior on horses and mules. Holed up in an abandoned house, his mother begged her husband to run, telling him, “If you allow yourself to be taken you will be killed without a doubt, and then what will be the fate of myself and the children?”
As her husband fled, the Turks arrived at the door, their swords unsheathed. They were repulsive, said Colvocoresses, violent, pock-marked, and disfigured. They forced the family back to the city. Along the way the boy watched as his uncle was stripped of his money and shot.
Colvocoresses soon found himself the prisoner of a Turk with one eye. The soldier was obligated to report to his commanding officer every day at the castle, bringing the child with him. One day, Colvocoresses had a chance encounter with his grandmother. The two exchanged information, crying for joy. The next day, she came to find Colvocoresses, telling him of his father’s escape to safety. A day later she again returned, but this time the angry Turks began to beat her. On his knees, young George begged for his grandmother’s life to be spared, but they continued the assault, first with their fists and then with their swords, until she could no longer stand. Taking her by the hair they dragged her onto the street, leaving her for dead.
Only days later, Colvocoresses was forced to leave his mother and sister. As they parted, his mother gave him this advice. “Remember to say your prayers daily. The Bible is full of instances of God’s goodness toward those who have remembered to pray to him in the hour of adversity.” The child listened and remembered, recording her words years later.
In America – 1823
Back in the Vermont, Captain Partridge opened his copy of The Statesman & Advertiser and read about the struggle of the Greek people. Having recently won their own war for independence, Partridge, like many Americans at the time, was sympathetic to the Greek cause.
Colvocoresses had just arrived in Baltimore with nine other boys on the brig Margareta (his father having ransomed him from servitude) and his fate now lay in the hands of the Greek Relief Committee. His intelligence and character soon drew praise from influential gentlemen, who decided he deserved an education.
After reading about the children of Chios in the newspaper, Partridge was so impressed with Colvocoresses’ story that he wrote to the Committee. He offered to educate the young boy at the Academy and bring him up as his son.
When he first came to Norwich, Vermont, in 1824, Colvocoresses was eight years-old and the Academy—an experiment in military education for citizen soldiers—was still in its infancy.
Though teased at first by the older boys for his traditional Greek garments, Colvocoresses proved an adaptable and exceptional student, learning English in two months. He also gained a champion in Partridge. Years later he would write, “It is not enough to say that I found a friend in Captain Partridge. He was to me as a father. He spared no expense during the nine years that I lived with him that could conduce to my comfort or promote my future welfare.”
Off to Sea–1832
Using his political leverage and social connections, Partridge was able to obtain a midshipman’s appointment for Colvocoresses, and at age 16 he entered the Navy on board the U.S. Frigate United States, bound for the Mediterranean.
The cruise gave him the chance to see his parents for the first time since the massacre—and, unknowingly, the last. It also served as a rude awakening to life at sea. As the Navy’s lowest ranking officer, he was thrust into the grueling duties of a sailor. Training was physical. With hands torn and bleeding from rope burns and a rolling stomach still adjusting to rations, a new officer was expected to be a seaman too–learning to splice ropes, watching the tides, navigating by the stars, using a compass, and reefing a sail.
Years passed before Colvocoresses would return Stateside for any lengthy period. Finally his training ended, and on June 23, 1838, he underwent a grueling examination to become a Passed Midshipman, succeeding with great aplomb and ranking number 34 on the list. With a great sense of accomplishment he received his official Passed Midshipman’s Warrant: a small parchment signed by President Martin Van Buren, his name now forever spelled in Naval history as Colvocoressis.
Nicknamed “Colvos” and “Crawl-over-crosstrees” by his fellow sailors, Colvocoresses had less than two months to enjoy his new status before being ordered to report for the voyage of his life.
Yet a sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous. — Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast
Painted black with a white interior, Lt. Wilkes’ flagship—the sloop-of-war Vincennes—was the Rolls Royce of the adventuring world. The first U.S. ship to circle the globe, she was smooth, fast, and carried 190 men. Another sloop-of-war, the Peacock, followed the flagship with a crew of 130. Next came the heavy store ship Relief, carting provisions, followed by the brig Porpoise, with Colvocoresses on board. Bringing up the rear were two light schooners—Flying Fish and Sea Gull—each with a crew of 15.
The crew settled into their berths, the ship becoming their floating home. Instructed to keep journals to be turned over to the government, Colvos started writing what would become his book, Four Years in a Government Exploring Expedition.
As an officer, Colvos had a bit more privacy than the average sailor, but harsh conditions were shared by all. The smell, noise, and mess of livestock crowded the decks, and by September most of the crew suffered from dysentery. There was a communal “head,” a grated area near the bowsprit where sailors relieved themselves, their feces swept overboard by the waves. Failure to use the head properly was an infraction that could result in flogging: U.S. Navy code allowed for up to 12 lashes to be delivered as punishment for disobeying ship’s rules. As the voyage progressed, Wilkes would routinely exceed the maximum by whipping sailors to delirium, a practice that would ultimately result in his court martial.
But despite less-than-favorable conditions, the journey was still magical for Colvocoresses, who wrote that on the 25th of September, as they weighed anchor out of St. Jago in the cloudy night, the ocean glowed—the phosphorescence so great “we could almost see to read by it.” He noted that the crew remained on deck for hours, straining the water through muslin to examine the “animalculae, which in the dark shone as brilliantly as the fire-fly.”
Orange Harbor at Tierra Del Fuego
As they approached the equator, stars showered the ships. One by one the vessels arrived in Rio de Janeiro for restocking. The Porpoise was “smoked” to exterminate the roaches that had plagued the crew since their departure. Wilkes notified the crew of the intent to sail for Antarctica.
After surveying the Negros River in Argentina, the squadron headed down to Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the known world. Near this fragmented and icy shore, the winds of two oceans meet in unexpected and violent ways. It was here, amongst the jagged rocks of Orange Bay in Tierra del Fuego, that the ships would encounter their first significant storms.
Colvos was now onboard the Relief, which stayed behind for a collecting expedition and a survey of the Strait of Magellan. Three weeks in they were hit with a gale. Through sleet and fog, they fought with the wind. “The waves rose in mountains, and the ship was rapidly drifting towards the coast.”
To save themselves they sailed desperately towards Noir Island, hoping to ride out the storm in a small snow-covered, icy peaked cove. Relief commander, Lt. Long, ordered two anchors dropped in the deep water, one landing at 120 fathoms, or 720 feet below the sea. Then they braced themselves.
As the morning approached, they prayed that the winds would calm, but to no avail. The next day the wind shifted, sending the rolling sea towards them. The ship strained against the anchor chains and as the day and evening wore on Long ordered the men to put in the last two anchors for the night. At daylight, the crew was horrified to discovered two of their anchors had broken and there seemed to be no end to the storm.
“The sky grew more angry as the day declined. After the sun went down the storm raged with greater violence than at any previous time. Never had we seen it blow so hard before, nor ever beheld such billows. A little after 8 o’clock the ship commenced dragging and a tremendous wave came over the bows, which dashed a number of the crew against the masts and guns, and completely inundated the birth-deck.”
At every moment the water was becoming shallower. “And the storm still raged with unabated fury.” Dragging its one remaining anchor, the ship drifted closer and closer to the reef behind them. Finally, the chain could hold no more and with a snap the ship was set adrift. As they began to float, it looked as though their destruction was imminent.
Then, as if touched by divine providence, the wind shifted. To the amazement of the crew, they slipped within inches of the reef.
Long was able to finally make a move. He quickly set the sails and headed to sea. “Had the storm continued a few moments longer we would inevitably have been lost,” wrote Colvos.
They turned out to be the lucky ones. When the squadron reunited in Valparaiso, Chili, the crew soon realized that the Sea Gull was missing. After last sighting her vanishing form in a storm near Orange Bay, they sadly concluded that the lovely ship, her captain and 18 crew members were all lost.
The South Pacific Islands – 1839
Wilkes’ first foray to the South Pole also had disappointing results. Icy jams all but encircled them, stalling their progress and with it their dreams of discovering the seventh continent.
Reunited again, Wilkes soon reshuffled his officers, transferring Colvos to the Peacock and sending the sluggish Relief to drop supplies in Australia and Hawaii. The rest of the squadron soon headed up the coast of South America to Lima, Peru and prepared to head west across the Pacific. They had now been at sea over a year. As they sailed into the Pacific Islands, Colvos remarked that they had officially traded freezing weather for “oppressive heat.”
Today this vast collection of more than 20,000 islands has been divided geographically into three major groups: Polynesia (including New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa and Tonga); Melanesia (including New Guinea, Fiji and Vanatu); and Micronesa (including Guam, Marshall Islands, and Palau). But in 1839 the number and location of the islands remained a mystery: There had been no systematic surveying or charting of this region of the globe, where reefs and rocky shorelines routinely claimed both ships and the lives of sailors. The squadron set in with gusto.
As they arrived at their first stop, the Island Clermont de Tonnere (today known as Reao), they were greeted by armed natives, who stood on the beach brandishing swords. Provoked, Wilkes used birdshot to force the islanders to retreat, clearing the beach so they could disembark. It was a violent and aggressive beginning, and a clear indication of how Wilkes planned to deal with acts of defiance.
On September 12, Colvos and the Peacock reached Tahiti, where in 1788 the mutiny of the Bounty took place. The ships were immediately besieged by natives in canoes selling pigs, yams, oranges, and the charms of women. Though missionaries had come to the island more than 40 years prior, their influence had not yet fully transformed the culture, and Colvos remarks that the women in the canoes were “not the most chaste.”
A month later, the squadron left Tahiti to head to Tutilla, one of the Samoan Islands. Anchored in Pago Pago, they found circular houses, and as a prelude to their journey ahead, runaway convicts from Botany Bay, Australia.
The South Pole – 1839-40
At the time of the Ex. Ex., there was hardly a location in the known world that famed explorer Captain James Cook had not visited, and Australia was no exception. Following Cook’s discoveries there, the English established the colony of New South Wales in 1788, and when Wilkes’ squadron arrived, it found Sydney to be a bustling commercial center, perfect for preparations to the South Pole. Now transferred to the Vincennes, Colvocoresses and the rest of the crew began to “secure the ship from the cold, boisterous weather.”
In 1840, no one really knew what lay at the southern most region of the world. Cook held the record for the furthest journey to the south, but the reality of what they might find in this immense frozen space was totally unknown. On December 26, 1839, the Ex. Ex. set off to find out. Three weeks into the journey they sailed into what Colvos called “a magnificent spectacle” of floating ice.
“Every fantastic form and variety of tint was there. Masses, assuming the shape of a Gothic church, with arched windows and doors, and all the rich drapery of that style, composed, apparently of crystal, showing all the shades of opal, or of emerald green; pillars and inverted cones, pyramids and mounds of every shape, valleys and lakes, comes supported by round transparent columns of cerulian hue, and cities and palaces as white as the purest alabaster. The liveliest imagination could not paint to itself a scene more rich and grand, and we stood gazing at it with astonishment and admiration until it was again enveloped in fog.”
They pushed on, navigating through narrow ice passages, picking their way through the frozen ocean, while weathering snowstorms and the fickle winds. By January 31st after several near death encounters, the crew had had enough. The sick list had swelled and most of the men were suffering with boils and “rheumatic affections.” The ships doctors presented Wilkes with a request to return north.
As February wore on it became more and more obvious that what they were seeing in the distance was land. On the 14th Colvos and crew “effected a landing on an iceberg and found embedded in it sand, gravel and rocks. These last were several feet in circumference, and composed of basalt and red sandstone. Many of the smaller stones were brought on board, and they very soon disappeared, for everyone was anxious to possess for themselves a piece of the new continent. There is no doubt in my mind, but that this mass of ice had once been a part of the icy barrier, and that the surface now exposed to view had rested on the bottom of the sea.”
By the 21st with the crew exhausted from exposure, and ice nearly encircling them, Wilkes was ready to head north. By then they had mapped 1,500 miles of coastline, named Wilkes Land and established the presence of a seventh continent.
And they were only halfway through their journey.
Fiji Islands– 1840
After brief stops back in Sydney, then New Zealand, and Tonga, the squadron’s next significant task was to explore and map the Fiji Islands. Feared by explorers for the violence of the natives and their practice of eating human flesh, the expedition prepared for the worst.
They began their work on the Island of Ovalau where they were greeted by a throng of natives hooting “admiration” from the beach. That afternoon the chief and an American, David Whippy, came on board to welcome them. Nantucket born Whippy had had lived among the Fijians for the past 18 years after deserting from a whaling ship. He now served as an advisor to the chief and a translator for the expedition.
The expedition made much headway among the islands, surveying uncharted atolls, establishing trade treaties for American commerce, and allowing the scientists valuable time to make observations and collect samples of flora and fauna. But their stay was not to be without conflict. As they had entered the Pacific Islands with violence, so too did they leave.
A week before the survey work was scheduled for completion, Lt. Joseph Underwood and the commander’s nephew, Wilkes Henry, were ambushed while trying to buy food on the island of Malolo.
The Americans were in the middle of negotiating for pigs when the cry of “Turanga! Turanga!” was heard. Two Fijians seized the musket of a sailor named Clark, who took out his knife and stabbed one while Underwood, who had been wounded with a spear, knocked the other down with the butt of his pistol. Suddenly, a horde of natives jumped out from behind the mangrove shrubs, and Underwood issued the order to head to the ship. As he called out to Henry to help cover their retreat in the knee-deep water, clubs and spears began flying. After shooting Underwood’s pursuer, Henry tried to run to Underwood, but was clubbed from behind, falling face first in the water, his attackers pouncing on his lifeless form and stripping him of his clothes. Underwood countered by drawing his pistols and shooting a native before being clubbed over the head himself. As Underwood tried to recover from the blow, Clark, whose own face had been run through by a spear, ran to help him. But he was too late; cut across the forehead with a pole-axe, blood flowed from Underwood’s mouth. As more crew stormed the beach, the natives fled, leaving the lifeless bodies lying in the sand.
They buried the men on an isolated beach, where they hoped the graves would not be dug up and the bodies eaten. Saddened and burning with anger, the crew prepared to retaliate.
The following day, 80 sailors landed on the west side of the island and set course to lay waste to the land—kill the men, burn the villages, and uproot the crops. By the end of their assault, more than 70 natives were dead, their island in flames. The next morning the remaining people of Malolo begged for a truce on their knees, Wilkes agreed to cease hostilities if they supplied the squadron with water and provisions, and promised to never again attack a white man.
“Thus ended this affair.” Colvocoresses writes. “An awful and a severe lesson to the savages, but not more so than they deserved.”
For the next 30 days the sailors wore the badge of mourning for their fallen friends. With half rations and heavy hearts they pressed onward, their next stop: Hawaii and the Sandwich Islands.
Hawaii – 1841
Placed on the map of the world by Cook, the nine islands held the promise of civilization for the sailors who had finally earned a couple weeks of freedom and relaxation. There were letters from home waiting, along with the pleasures of the port of Honolulu. A whaling epicenter for American ships, the city had grown up catering to the needs of sailors. Food, liquor, dancing, and women greeted the crew.
The visit was an auspicious time to for the journey to stop as well, for it soon became clear that the expedition, initially slated to last three years, was about to add one more. For the sailors and marines who signed up for a shorter commitment, it was time to make a choice. For those who decided not to reenlist, Wilkes was ready to reason with them using the lash.
Colvos himself was ordered to help with Wilkes’ inducements. He escorted four shackled Marines from the Honolulu jail, where they had been sitting in solitary confinement with half rations until they could see the light. When they returned to the ship, however, they still refused to enlist. It was only after 12 lashes with the cat that they were able to see his point of view.
With the crew reinvigorated, they began a survey of the islands, studies of the volcanoes and Wilkes’ legendary scientific investigation atop Mauna Loa. Finally preparations for the last leg of their journey were about to begin.
Northwest Coast of America: 1841
On the morning of April 5 they began their cruise to the northwest coast of America. The winds soon shifted, the weather cooled and Colvos and the crew put back on their “woolen clothing.”
In 1841, the Oregon Country, now the northwest corner of America, was a remote chunk of land whose “joint occupation” had been shared by the United States and Great Britain since the Treaty of 1818. Though Americans had settled the coast in large numbers, the region’s commerce and control still remained in the hands of the British owned Hudson’s Bay Company.
The center of that universe was the Columbia River. Explored by Lewis and Clark, the mouth of the river was, and still is, legendary for its extreme danger. One of worst intersections of river and sea in the world, the Columbia River Bar is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Three miles wide, with unpredictable shifting currents, huge waves, and wind, the bar has claimed more than 2000 ships since it was first discovered in 1792.
The Ex. Ex. had been warned of its notorious dangers and in May, when the Vincennes and Colvos arrived, “the weather was boisterous.” The chaos of the water was so great, and Wilkes so apprehensive, he decided not to risk his ship across the bar. Instead he moved on to chart the environs north near Puget Sound.
When the Peacock arrived in July, three months behind schedule, and got set to tackle the bar, she wasn’t so lucky. Commander William Hudson made a navigational mistake that landed the ship wedged on the bar. Caught aground, the ship was pummeled by the crashing sea. As it broke around them in pieces, the sailors could do nothing but hold on until the weather could calm enough for an escape. As the sky finally cleared, they began their evacuation, vessel by vessel, until all the crew was safe. Hudson remained until last, saying goodbye to the beloved ship and the hundreds of scientific artifacts she carried.
Soon the squadron broke into exploring groups. The Porpoise and the Flying Fish continued the survey of the Columbia River while the Vincennes sailed to San Francisco and smaller parties surveyed some of the surrounding rivers.
Colvos and the scientists were attached to an overland party headed to California. Warding off illness and Indians they trekked for more than a month to reach the Sacramento Valley. Arriving at Captain John Sutters’ place, where on his land gold would be discovered 7 years later, they were greeted warmly. Soon they boarded the Vincennes launch and headed to San Francisco.
In California Colvos was transferred to the brig Oregon, purchased as the Peacock’s replacement, for the long journey home. They set sail westward, back to warmth of Hawaii, a stop in the East Indies, a swing by the Cape of Good Hope, past the tomb of Napoleon and finally catching the wind up the Atlantic into New York. Arriving on July 3, 1842, Colvos had been “absent from home and friends for 3 years and 11 months.”
Upon its return to the States, controversy clouded the accomplishments of the Ex. Ex. The political climate in the United States had shifted, and debate raged about the expedition’s discovery of Antarctica. A series of court-martials also cast a shadow on the voyage, and Wilkes himself was put on trial. While most of the counts against him were dismissed, he was found guilty in 17 instances of exceeding the number of lashes he could give as punishment and underwent a public reprimand. Colvos was present and testified during the courts-martial as to the whipping of the marines in Hawaii.
The fracas diminished the importance of the discoveries of the expedition in Colvos’ lifetime. But its accomplishments were great. When the Ex. Ex. finally returned, the squadron had traveled over 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 islands, and produced 180 charts, some of which were still being used as late as World War II. Their forays into the southern hemisphere confirmed evidence of the continent of Antarctica, and charted 800 miles of the coastal Oregon Territory. Colvocoresses himself had three geographical features named after him on the new maps of the world; Ndravuni or Colvocoressis Island in Fiji, Colvos Passage, a tidal strait in Puget Sound, and Colvos Rocks. The expedition also collected enough natural history specimens to lay the foundation for what would become the Smithsonian Institution.
A Violent and Mysterious End
The journey was pivotal in Colvos life, but at 26, he still had most of his life before him. The next year he was promoted to lieutenant. Then at the age of 31 he married Eliza Freelon Halsey with whom he had four children. (One of which, his only son, George Partridge would follow in his footsteps and retire from the Navy as a Rear Admiral.)
Colvocoresses would also become a national hero for his conduct during the Civil War, when while commanding the USS Supply, he captured the blockade runner Stephen Hart. The glory though was not without pain. During this time his beloved wife died and to his heartbreak he was unable to leave the ship for her funeral. He eventually remarried Adeline Swasey, the younger sister of Captain Alden Partridge’s wife. Then 1867 he was made a captain and retired. For five years he lived quietly at his home in Litchfield, Conn. Then, the fates, which he had dodged since his youth in Greece, finally caught up with him.
On Monday, June 3, 1872 just as the evening church bells rang eleven o’clock, police officer L.M. Bailey heard the explosion of a pistol from his post on the docks in Bridgeport, Conn. Running quickly up the road, he found Capt. George M. Colvocoresses lying in a pool of blood, his shirt aflame. Gasping twice for air, the adventurer, hero, and author died. He was 55.
Bound for the night boat to New York, he had been waylaid along a side street. His cane, which held a hidden sword, was broken and his satchel slashed with a knife. His watch and $8,000 in cash had been stolen, and nearly $80,000 worth of bonds were eventually reported missing.
News of the hero’s death spread swiftly, splashed across American newspapers from New York to Ohio, and rumors raged as an insurance policy worth $200,000 was revealed. Rewards were offered for the discovery of the killer and the famous Pinkerton detective agency even became involved, but the murder remains unsolved to this day.