January 11, 2012LITTLETON — While Northern Pass opponents and proponents alike have gone to great lengths to make their voices heard, a New Hampshire woman is literally taking her mission to great heights — at least 4,000 feet high or more.
An avid hiker, runner and enthusiast of protecting New Hampshire's mountains and wilderness, 24-year-old Larisa Dannis of Strafford — with a bright orange sign in tow — is well on her way to hiking all of the state's 48 4,000-foot mountains in one winter. If all goes well, it will be her third time completing the mission, but it will be the first time that it's for a cause greater than herself.
"I feel like the beauty of this region is just unsurpassed; it's wild, it's rugged and there's a reason that millions of people come to visit this area year after year," said Dannis last Friday, after she had already checked off 20 peaks in two weeks. "So, the fact that they want to come in and run towers through this region — I don't think that's acceptable, and I think that there are smarter ways that we should approach New England's energy policy."
Northern Pass would bring a 140-mile-long 1,200 megawatt DC transmission line down to a converter terminal in Franklin, and from there, a 40-mile-long AC line down to Deerfield's substation — ultimately supplying southern New England with the power. Towns that the "preferred route" would pass through include Whitefield, Dalton, Bethlehem, Sugar Hill, Easton, Lincoln and Woodstock, according to its website.
Dannis' passion for hiking and New Hampshire's mountains has its roots in annual birthday hikes when she was a child and treasured memories of Mounts Eisenhower, Adams and Jefferson. However, hiking didn't become a way of life until she was older: "I had started working full time and gotten out of shape, but I had great memories of hiking with my dad, in particular." Then Dannis discovered the 4,000-footer list, and 2007 saw her return to the mountains with all her heart. Now she feels they are a big part of who she is.
"These mountains, they mean the world to me, they've changed my life," she said. "I started out as an unfit hiker and now I'm running 100-mile races, and it's all because I discovered these mountains."
Dannis first completed the 48 in one winter during the 2008-2009 season and again in 2009-2010. In 2010-2011 she had to take a break due to a foot injury, but that only served to fire her up to tackle the undertaking once again — and this time she really wanted to do it for a cause.
"I'm strongly opposed to the [Northern Pass] project," said Dannis. "I thought this would be a good way for me to get out and hike the 48 in one winter while raising awareness amongst a group of people who I feel are also very passionate about the landscape.
"I'm a strong advocate for property rights. The project in its current form — having to potentially heavily leverage eminent domain in order to go though — I think that's ridiculous."
On Dec. 23 she kicked off the mission, dubbed "48 Orange Summits," with Mounts Field, Willey and Tom — taking a picture at every summit with the bright orange banner that reads "Save Our Homes & Forests: Stop Northern Pass."
By Monday, she already was halfway to her goal after completing Owl's Head, Galehead Mountain, South Twin Mountain and North Twin Mountain over the weekend.
"I'm the kind of person who really likes to work toward a goal because it keeps me motivated," said Dannis. "When you work full time and you want to go for a 48 in one winter, you have to be out there every weekend."
Goals definitely seem to work for Dannis, who also has hiked all 48 in every season: winter, spring, summer, fall and then did winter again. And she's still plugging away at "The Grid," which she started in 2007 with Mount Jefferson and involves hiking every New Hampshire mountain in every month of the year for a total of 576 peaks. The Grid doesn't have to be done consecutively.
As part of 48 Orange Summits, she kicked off the New Year by traversing seven of the presidential in 9 hours and 45 minutes: Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower and lastly — by that time it was dark — Mount Pierce. Dannis said they weren't going for a record time as they were stopping at every peak to take pictures, but the average "book" time for the hike they did is 14 hours.
From hiking she got into trail running, and from trail running she got into ultra running. Now she's running 100-mile races, with one planned for February in Texas.
Dannis says she hopes to be wearing a "No Northern Pass" shirt for that race (if she can get one made in time) in order to bring the issue nationwide, rather than just in New England.
"We are very proud of [Dannis'] efforts," said her parents, Jim and Sandy, in an email. "Lary is helping to bring the younger generation and visitors from out of state into the struggle against Northern Pass, and both these groups are important."
They gave her the orange sign, which appears in every photo, and are involved with Responsible Energy Action LLC (REAL), which was born in response to the Northern Pass project.
"[The sign is] surprisingly durable," said Dannis. "It packs up small, it's not too heavy, and it's withstood some pretty extreme temperatures." Specifically it withstood 0 degrees Fahrenheit at the top of Mount Garfield — Dannis' second day of hiking — where it also was almost lost to the wind. (She said her parents do have another sign that is a back up.)
The public can follow Dannis' progress through an online gallery where she posts the pictures of herself with the sign — and sometimes a few friends, old or new — on each mountain's summit.
"Throughout the course of this single season, I have encountered and talked with a lot of other hikers," said Dannis. "I have had a few discussions with hikers in which I've significantly changed their views on the project.
"They've been familiar with the project, and some have felt that it's a good thing for the state. After talking to them a little bit about the issues and the potential impact, they tend to change their mindsets and their views toward the project."
"I see myself as informing people," added Dannis. "We all need to make our own decisions on how we're going to feel one way or another … [but] it really makes me happy to see that once people understand what this project is about, they're really on board and they also feel that its just not a good thing for our state."
Dannis said her favorite times are when she gets a chance to talk with a hiker and then they want to join her in the picture at the summit.
Dannis takes winter hiking seriously with the right gear and the right preparation.
For the seven-mountain hike, Dannis made sure to pack safety supplies, a bivy sack (or sleeping bag), a waterproof jacket and plenty of clothing layers, headlamps, a GPS and, of course, food. Special winter gear includes microspikes for light snow, crampons for above the tree line and snowshoes for deep snow.
"It's really important to be safe, especially when undertaking a big hike in the winter, since weather conditions can change on a dime," said Dannis, who added that she rarely hikes alone in the winter. A loyal companion has been Toby — a 1-year and 8-month-old Brittany, who also has hiked all 48 of New Hampshire's 4,000 footers.
"Winter hiking has become increasingly popular. I've seen more and more people out on the trails each year I've been out, and I started four years ago," said Dannis.
Dannis said there is a great hiking community in the Northeast and anyone who is interested in the sport can find plenty of resources and forums online. That's how she got her start and made some close friends who helped show her the ropes.
Dannis said to start with easier peaks and trails, always check conditions, be prepared, let others know where you are going and use common sense.
"There are always hikes that you can do that are safe," she said.
Recently, Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich (our deadline for this paper was Monday) said he would support the Northern Pass project if the lines are buried — a popular compromise for many in opposition to the project as it now stands.
In response, Northern Pass said that it's continuing research on underground technology and will "continue to work to find a route which is acceptable to the state given the input and advice we have received to date."
One of the bigger issues for Northern Pass opponents and proponents is House Bill 648, which will go before the Senate on Jan. 18. Opponents have been encouraging New Hampshire residents to contact their representatives to pass the legislation, which would amend RSA 371:1 and further restrict eminent domain.
The RSA already prohibits public utilities from petitioning for "permission to take private land or property rights for the construction or operation of an electric generating plant." HB 648 tacks on, "or a transmission facility so long as the transmission facility is not needed for system reliability." In other words, the state couldn't take land for power lines unless power supplies were unreliable — it couldn't be taken to provide alternative and competitive sources of energy.
Upcoming local events planned by the opposition include an "Ordinance 101 Meeting" at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13, at the Easton Town Hall. Campbell McLaren will give a presentation and answer questions. At 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at Lafayette School in Franconia, Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund Tom Linzey will give a presentation.
To track Dannis' progress, visit picasaweb.google.com/larisa.dannis/.
For information on the Northern Pass opposition visit, responsibleenergyaction.com, burynorthernpass.blogspot.com, www.livefreeorfry.org or Google "Northern Pass" and you fill find numerous websites and blogs dedicated to the cause.
For the Northern Pass project's website, visit northernpass.us.