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The Country Northward, A Book Review

The Country Northward
The Country Northward

I think many regular hikers feel a sense of ambivalence in sharing hiking trails and the wilderness with other hikers or visitors who might not value them as much or use the resource with as much care as they do. The fear of these self-appointed stewards is that their place of refuge, which is how many of us view our wild lands, will be put at risk through recreational overuse, commercial interests, or quasi-non-profits that have every legal right to use the same resource. I see this play out vividly in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire where I do a lot of hiking, a “land of many uses,” ranging from snowmobiling and downhill skiing to lumbering and lodging. It’s something I know I fear and feel helpless to prevent.

This feeling of ambivalence is one of the underlying themes of The Country Northward, Dan Ford’s journal of a 100 mile backpacking trip through the White Mountains. While there are many things to recommend in this fabulous book, that’s one of the most striking aspects of this work that resonated with me. It’s an inner conflict that I’ve struggled to come to terms with myself this past year.

Originally published in 1976 and reprinted in 2012 (including Kindle), I was surprised how timeless Dan Ford’s account of his hike is. He encounters many hikers and backpackers who have no idea what they’re doing in the mountains: they don’t have maps, or proper clothing, not enough water or food. Ford helps set them straight, as we all do in the mountains, where it’s still possible to exchange kindness between strangers.

Ford is less generous with the Forest Service and the policies of Wilderness-ification that were practiced in the mid-70’s such as the destruction of wilderness lean-tos throughout the White Mountains, a practice which has probably done more harm than good by encouraging hikers to camp anywhere with abandon rather than concentrating their impact.

He is even more critical of the Appalachian Mountain Club huts and lodging organization which he repeatedly calls Wilderness, Inc. They were in Ford’s view, gentrifying the wilderness and charging guests exorbitant lodging fees in 1975. Oh, how little the issues and characters have changed since then!

Wilderness politics aside, Ford’s journal is a well-written account of his scenic journey through the mountains that moves along a nice clip. Throughout his account, Ford delves into the rich history of wilderness exploration, tourism, and lumber barons that helped open the White Mountains to settlement and eventually drove the public to reclaim the land after it had been ravaged by clear-cutting and fire. Hikers familiar with the White Mountains will enjoy Fords account of his backpacking trip, particularly his descriptions of the characters he meets on his journey and the wilderness lean-tos that were well-worn in 1975, but have been since been removed.

Full of wry observations and intimate introspection,  The Country Northward is a backpacking book to be reread and shared with other hikers. This volume has found of place on my bookshelf, where it will remain.

Disclosure: Philip Werner purchased this book with his own funds. 


  1. Excellent. I can always use more books for my hiking reading list.

  2. I see it all the time and in 53+ years of hiking, (yeah I am an old guy with over 30,000 miles of trail experience) nothing has really changed much. There are high and lows as in any Acitivity. The number of hikers increases for a short time and then takes a sudden drop after they find out it means work and sweat and not all places have air conditioned and ventalated bathrooms.It is not that falsely word painted heavily Marketed view of an idealic romp through the woods, with Bambi and Thumper and Yogi! That there is Fish in every lake, and the bugs and bees and forest pests are safely beaten back by flowery scented sprays and clothing. What bothers me the most is the Professional Trail Organizations who make millions of dollars off of sponsored hikes and day trips where the majoirty of funds actually goes to Politicans under the guise of “Lobbying” instead of Trail maintenace and buying private property to add to the parks and Forests. Whose directiors make $160,000 a year and oversees a financial empire with Mutual Funds, Retirement Accounts, etc. etc. all Tax free and rarely giving back anything to the very Taxpayer paid for and supported areas they make most of their money off off..And then the environmental damage these groups have caused by demanding suppression of natually occuring events within nature which nature has used to keep itself clean and disease free which is one of the reasons why there are such huge destructive wild fires in the Western States now and millions of acres are suffering with disease and bug infestions..So instead of protecting the Forests, they did a marketing switch to environmental and Global Warming causes so as to act like they had nothing to do with all the destruction when in fact they were instrumental via Law Suits, organizing protests and finding weak minded and uneducated Judges to support them. Who for years took millions from the Drilling and Forest Industries, which I feel were more or less blackmail or bribes to keep the organization away..Similar to what a few Politicans do, create a new Law and then as soon as the proper amounts are place in the proper accounts the Law disappears in Committee…. Many of the problems in the White Mountains are directly related to these groups and I wonder if they still own an operate that High Trail Hostel which made a lot of money for the local Club, just like the one in Georgia, where they got the Government to tear down the lean to’s in hopes of increasing business to their facilities which are on private property. I have seen so much corruption out there and then with the advent of Marketing Maggot driven Advertising in so many once creditable Outdoor Magazines they are no longer creditable and their subscription numbers tell the real truth. When you subscritpions drop from over 3 million to less than 150,000 something should tell you youv’e made a huge mistake..Ok that is enough I am off my Soap box, but I just had to get it out of me before I died…which could be any day now, though I feel good all over and I attribute that to all the outdoor activities and hiking I have done. Most guys my age are decripet and in pretty bad shape and are glued to their easy chairs and find it hard to get their big guts up from that chair…Sorry if I offened anyone with the truth but that is just the way of us old guys..we want to pass the truth onto the youngsters…which your current world leaders are trying very hard to negate,,ask yourself why….

  3. You really need to take it easy. I suggest that you focus on enjoying yourself and worry less about “setting people straight” and how other people haven’t attained your level of wilderness appreciation.

      • I was talking to you, Philip, but I see that Eddie is also pretty worked up.

        I’m just speaking from the perspective of someone who really likes hiking but is a bit turned off by some of the views here.

      • Could you explain what it is I should relax about? Not trying to be confrontational here.What exactly offends you by my activism in an area that I love and want to protect?

      • I didn’t take that away from the review at all. Can you elaborate on the views you are turned off by. The book sounds like an interesting read and I would expect based on the review that the author speaks negatively of some of the management/use aspects.

        I would also expect to see people on a forum like this advocating for the protection of natural areas with leanings toward backpacking.

    • I do not necessarily share the anger and frustration Eddie is venting, but I am ok with him letting loose in a forum like this where everyone wants to see the best parts of “wilderness” continue on for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

      I am a newbie backpacker ( although it is how I spent most of my free time in my teenage years – many many many years ago). I have sought out ideas and approaches to backpacking through this site and many others in order to educate myself on “best practices” in order to make the reintroduction to backpacking as painless as possible.

      I have other pastimes as well, including car racing. In order to be allowed behind the wheel of a race car, I have had to take several preparatory courses. My friends who are into boating have had to do the same. It occurs to me a minimum training requirement could be a prerequisite to use any Federal or State lands for overnight backpacking. While this may seem like a stretch to some, there is plenty of infrastructure in place to offer courses similar to those offered by AMC and REI. At least it would raise the level of awareness of the issues if not completely change behavior. Just a thought.

      BTW – bought the book on Kindle. At $3.82 it is a steal. Now I have some reading for Christmas afternoon while the turkey is cooking.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all Section Hiker readers.

  4. Thank you for the review and for the comments! It is really a nice Christmas surprise for a guy with two new knees who is looking forward to his first real hike in many years. Please, please, some or all of you — post a review on Amazon.com or your choice of retailer! The book languishes for the most part…. Merry Christmas to you all — Dan Ford

  5. Dan – So glad you dropped us a note. I loved your voice in The Country Northward and the skillful way you interleaved history and background into your journal. Much to learn for an aspiring writer. Please drop me a line if you’d like to go for a hike sometime in NH. I have nursed my mom through two knee replacements and know what a remarkable difference they make..I wish you a speedy recovery and expect you’ll be redlining again in no time.

  6. I ordered a copy and looking forward to reading it.

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