It's a magical hour on a magical day 10:05 a.m. on Mountain Day at Colby-Sawyer College.
As the bell tolled atop Colgate Hall Monday, Sept. 24, 2007 to alert the college community that all classes had been cancelled and they should head for the buses waiting to take them to Mt. Kearsarge, whoops of joy erupted on the quad and in the residence halls.
I'm not able to hear the bell from my office, but I did hear the hollers out on the lawn, so I knew something was up, said new faculty member David Reed, assistant professor of Humanities.
Mountain Day, a surprise reprieve from the usual routine that arrives whenever the college president so chooses, is a much-loved tradition that dates back to the mid-19th century. Wearing everything from flip-flops and Crocs to running shoes and well-worn hiking boots, 810 students, faculty and staff piled into vans and cars to make tracks for the mountain.
A Colby-Sawyer Tradition
Under a beautiful sky that early in the morning was so clear the John Hancock and Prudential towers in Boston were visible through binoculars from the summit, Old Kearsarge welcomed the traditional visit from the nearby college community. Already waiting for the hikers at Winslow State Park were Colby-Sawyer staff who had set up a trail-mix table, a t-shirt tie-dying station, and all the fixings for a cook-out that would be ready after the climb.
Tromping past the cellar hole of the old Winslow House hotel still outlined by its fieldstone foundation, few students paused to imagine the structure that once stood there, or to ponder that the hotel was named for Admiral John Winslow, commander of the USS Kearsarge during the Civil War.
After Winslow sank the confederate ship Alabama off the coast of France, he became a national hero. Fame is fleeting, though, and so was the hotel's existence - it was burned in the early 20th century when it couldn't produce satisfactory profits.
Many of the Colby-Sawyer community gathered around the picnic tables at the base near the hotel site and got better acquainted.
Not everyone who goes to Mountain Day climbs the mountain, said Grants Manager Janice McElroy. Some are helping to run the event, some find it too physically demanding, and some just like to relax and enjoy the sun and conversation with colleagues. I chose the latter and enjoyed the chance to visit with long-time staff members and meet others. It was also a great chance to people watch, especially the students as they mugged for photographs.
Two roads diverged And sorry I could not travel both ...
While some people relaxed, others tightened their laces and plotted their course up the mountain. Two trails diverged in the wood at the base, but both the long-and-gentle and the shorter-but-steeper options led to the rocky summit. There was no need to be sorry in a Robert Frost-kind-of-way about not travelling both choices, as many hikers went up the Winslow trail and down Barlow.
Brad Lemieux '08 from Sandwich, Mass., was impressed by how many students hiked this year, and attributed the high level of participation to the large incoming class. Mountain Day is a good bonding experience, said the senior, who went all the way to the top again this year.
Some dashed up the mountain in 20 minutes, some enjoyed a leisurely pace, and a few struggled but eventually made it.
The view was worth it, though, from the summit left bare after a 1796 forest fire that burned the vegetation and exposed the soil to erosion. At 2,937 feet, a vertical climb of 1,117 feet from the picnic area, Mt. Sunapee, Ragged and Cardigan Mountains and Pleasant Lake sprawled in the foreground, while the White Mountains and Vermont peaks were visible in the distance.
For Aimee Bwiza, a first-year student from Rwanda, the whole day was a mad dash as it happened to be her very first day on campus. She knew about the tradition beforehand, but never dreamed it would be the first thing she did once she arrived.
The hike wasn't bad, and the view was beautiful, but coming down was crazy with all the rocks, I came down fast so I could get back to campus and meet my advisor, she said.
Colby-Sawyer President Tom Galligan was among the first to reach the peak and enjoyed watching the students join him at what felt like the top of the world.
It was a beautiful day and I was impressed by how enthusiastic and happy people were, he said. The president was approached by a student fully aware that he was participating in his last Mountain Day before graduation. Shaking President Galligan's hand, the senior expressed his thanks for the great tradition he was enjoying for the fourth time.
Mountain Day is the perfect definition of a tradition, said President Galligan, but he shouldn't have thanked me. Kudos to Director of Campus Activities Sharon Williamson, and all the people who plan the day. They're the ones who deserve people's thanks.
By noon, dozens of students were enjoying the views, and many of them were sharing what they saw with friends and family.
Hi, Mom. Yeah, I'm at the top, one student exclaimed into her cell phone before turning away, her words disappearing in the wind. Hey, where are you? asked another on her phone, waiting for friends down the trail to catch up with her.
After signing the traditional bed sheet to prove they'd made it, and gathering for a group photo, most students headed back down to the base.
I'm not coming back up this mountain again unless they put a McDonalds up here, proclaimed one athlete before bounding down the trail. Presumably, a pile of hamburgers at the bottom met their fate at his hands.
A Moveable Feast
Jodi Robinson, lunch supervisor, said that 640 hamburgers, 450 hotdogs, 430 chicken breasts, 200 garden burgers, 6 gallons of homemade chili, 70 pounds of potato salad, 30 pounds of pasta salad and 888 bottles of water were consumed at the picnic lunch.
Embellishing the menu were 640 slices of American cheese, 10 pounds of shredded lettuce, about 25 pounds of tomatoes and 20 pounds of pickles. That would be an impressive feast to assemble with a week's notice but, Robinson said, Dining Services is notified the night before if they're lucky.
When we get the call, we only have a few hours to thaw the hot dogs and chicken, and to make the potato and pasta salads, said Robinson. Then we have to plate the cheeses and such, and pack up without anyone seeing us.
This was Robinson's tenth Mountain Day, and every minute was on-the-go.
It's enjoyable to be outside and cook, but we're busy non-stop, she said. We all work together to make the meal happen; everyone works really hard.
At the End of the Day
The most popular activity of the day, after hiking and filling up on picnic food, was tie-dying the 2007 Mountain Day shirts. Director of Campus Activities Sharon Williamson, who also stayed busy at the base all day, said all 950 t-shirts were gone before 1 p.m.
Ashley Reynolds '08, from Wilton, N.H., stayed at the bottom of the mountain and said it was a good experience, though she was disappointed not to get a t-shirt. While she's gone to the mountain every year, climbing it once as a freshman was enough for her. You have to do it once, though, she said.
Professor Reed had a successful first trip up Kearsarge with his hiking partner and son, four-year-old Ethan, and overall had a great day.
We really enjoyed the picnic, and it was great to have the chance to see everyone off-campus in a less formal environment, said Professor Reed. One thing that made the day so special was the opportunity to see the incredible enthusiasm folks here display for the outdoors. Other highlights were seeing students who I would bet are expert snowboarders careering off the rocks on the way down, and watching Ethan scamper up the rocks.
By one o'clock, the summit was quieting down, though there was some excitement on the trail.
Director of Campus Safety Pete Berthiaume administered first aid to a first-year student who had injured her ankle, and with the help of Colby-Sawyer staff and students, carried her the rest of the way up the mountain and down the much shorter Warner side to a waiting vehicle.
I was impressed by the team effort, said Director Berthiaume. There was absolutely no hesitation from the students about helping a fellow student.
Like One Big Family
Whether helping one another off a mountain, encouraging each other in competition or collaborating on a project, Colby-Sawyer students, faculty and staff form a close-knit community that comes together in lots of little ways every day.
Spanning three centuries, Mountain Day brings everyone together in a big way maybe those who hike together, stay together. Here's to Mountain Day!