Night on the notch

Where to sleep? That was the question. Beneath the roof of the lean-to shelter, or under the much higher and vaster “roof” of open sky and star-filled heavens?
Nine of us sat on the platform in the lean-to shelter at the top of Smugglers’ Notch, looking out over Sterling Pond and trying to make that decision. Though the hike up from the trailhead on Route 108 at the top of the gap is not long — only about a mile and a quarter to the edge of the pond and a mile and a half total from trailhead to shelter — it is a very steep hike. And it was one of those hot and humid July days we have been seeing a lot of this summer of 2012. We were hot and tired.
The “we” was a group of seven youth and adult leaders from Memorial Baptist Church in Middlebury. The youth ranged in age from entering seventh-graders Jack Nop and Caroline Kimble of Middlebury up through high school senior Justus Sturtevant of Vergennes. Between those extremes were 11th-grader Jake Nop, 10th-graders Olivia Nop and Bristol’s Peter Dickerson, and upcoming ninth-grader Hannah Buttolph of East Middlebury. The supposed adults of the trip were myself and Lou Nop.
We had departed my house after breakfast, stopped en route to play a late-morning round of mini-golf in Stowe, and arrived at the trailhead shortly after noon after a winding drive up the south side of 108 — certainly one of the most beautiful drives in the state of Vermont. We ate bagged lunches at the trailhead and then spent an hour or more exploring and playing in the caves formed beneath the impressively massive boulders stacked up along the bottom of the cliffs on the west side of 108. The playground of boulders and the scenic drive alone are worth the 90-minute trip from Bristol up past Stowe, and the youth had lots of fun discovering passages and scrambling above and below the rocks.
But we had come north to hike and camp out at Sterling Pond. So eventually we called the troops together, strapped on our packs, and started up the east side of the notch. While the high schoolers leapt and bounded up the steep incline ahead of us, Lou and I plodded and trudged up the rear guard where we took plenty of rests and pretended we were going last in order help the stragglers; it was all just an excuse to rest our own weary legs and lungs. In actuality, even the two youngest members of the trip were pretty amazing. Counting the fresh loaf of banana bread she brought to share, I think Caroline’s pack weighed nearly as much as she did. But she didn’t complain.
Then we were there. Sterling Pond enticed most of us in for a very refreshing swim. (Fortunately we didn’t spot the leeches until after the swim or the participant list of swimmers might have dropped.) The swim was followed by some sort of game that blended hide-and-seek, tag, and kick-the-can played out in the open spaces near the top of the Smuggler’s Notch chair lift. (Lou and I were spectators, watching in amazement at how quickly the young legs had recovered and wondering if and when our own knees would feel normal again after the hike.) Eventually, while the game played on, I went back down to the pond and caught a brook trout with my backpacking fly rod. I caught it on a leech pattern I had tied. The trout appeared to be fat on leeches. I tried not to think about that while wading shin deep.
Supper of ramen noodles and fresh trout was cooked atop the mountain looking out northward over hundreds of square miles of Vermont mountains, forests and lakes including vistas of the northern reaches of Lake Champlain. The sunset over Champlain and the distant peaks of the Adirondacks was spectacular, and also alone worth the effort of the drive and hike.
Then came the final decision of where to sleep. The caretaker at the top of Smugglers’ Notch told us that it had rained every night in the past week. That information, however, was not enough to dissuade half of the crew from deciding to sleep out in the open. Lou and four of the youth rolled out their bags on the chairlift platform and slept beneath the stars. I went with the more cautious members of the crew back to the lean-to a hundred yards away through the woods. We fell asleep to the sounds of a distant fireworks display.
It was still the early hours of the dawn when the rain finally began to fall. I lay in my bedroll, dry beneath the roof of the lean-to, wondering how long it would be before the rest of the troops emerged wet and bedraggled. The answer was about 20 minutes. But they were smiling and not the least bit regretful of their decision to sleep beneath stars.
We cooked instant oatmeal beneath the roof. Added fresh blueberries also brought by Caroline. (How had she managed that pack?) Drank hot chocolate and instant coffee. The rain stopped. The sun came out. The kids were already laughing and talking about the night. On the hike out we paused at the western corner of Sterling Pond long enough to be appreciative for the beauty of creation and for its Creator. Then it was on down the mountain, back to Addison County.
And for most of us, straight into bed. Since, as it turns out, the decision of lean-to vs. open-sky didn’t really matter. None of us slept much more than a wink.

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