Walking with Willem

A meeting of minds on a trail into the wild

Chaya Harris with Willem Lange and Kiki Photo by Joe Klementovich

I was shifting from foot to foot, watching the early morning sky for warning signs and glancing at my activity tracker in a parking lot at Pinkham Notch, greeting my hikers as they arrived to get started on our climb up Mt. Washington. While the “Windows to the Wild” crew from NH PBS mic’d me up for the episode they were filming, they said not to worry and just talk naturally with the host Willem Lange. Despite the breeze and cool temperatures, I started sweating.

Willem casually strolled toward my group at the trailhead, already chuckling and eager to learn our names, what brought us out that day, our interests, our German folk song knowledge, and anything else we wanted to share. He listened precisely to get names like Chaya and Johanny correct. As he asked about my connection to nature and our group, Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit that celebrates black leadership in nature, I kept glancing up the trail. I worried about the unpredictable weather we’d likely face as I led the group on our first time up Tuckerman Ravine.

“You’ve never done this before, right?” Willem asked me. “I have a feeling you’re gonna do just fine.”

In this brief time, Willem’s amiability and authenticity were easy to sense. Just like you often see on his show, he sang old songs that spurred lots of questions and chuckles. He made me feel like the rocky summit at 6,280 feet was easily within our reach. Perhaps it’s because of our experience as educators — Willem as an English teacher and Outward Bound instructor, me formerly as a fifth grade teacher — that we both love a good story. I later learned that he’s experienced a myriad of runs, ziplining, cook-offs and even a wedding on Mt. Washington, and yet as I told him our story, he was fascinated.

I was happy to have a NH black history story to share on the way up. Ona “Oney” Judge was a young woman who escaped bondage under our first presidential family, the Washingtons, in 1796, and later settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the residents helped defend her right to emancipation. She married, had three children, and managed to earn a living using her sewing skills. Despite living in poverty, Judge exemplified the motto “Live Free or Die.”

We wearily ended our story for the day with hugs, gratitude and, of course, a song. “Until we meet again …” he crooned, which I would soon discover is his signature closing. Somehow, after about five miles with more than a 4,000-foot elevation gain, my legs felt lighter than when we began that morning.

Now when I happen to see that episode of “Windows to the Wild,” I smile at how anxious I’d felt, researching historical and environmental facts about the trail to prepare. Willem had reminded me that such connections to the land and the past renew our energy and strengthen our connections to each other. He wrote about our meeting in his weekly column “A Yankee Notebook” a few days later on October 9, 2017, explaining some of the nerves he felt too, and showing how he leaned into his discomfort.

I left that day with so many questions about Willem’s 80-plus years of life. Fortunately, I was able to see him again at the NH Audubon center last summer in Concord, and could ask a few of them: How did he come to host “Windows to the Wild”? Where does he get his ideas for “A Yankee Notebook,” which he’s been writing for about 1,940 weeks? How can I blend a career in education and the outdoors? I wanted to know more about all of his adventures, from 13 trips to the Arctic to several times on the Presidential Traverse to almost every peak in New Hampshire, where he still loves to hike.

“I look forward to going up Mt. Moosilauke,” he says. “I’ve climbed it so many times. It’s the westernmost of the 4,000-footers, almost 5,000 feet. I just love that I get to talk to so many people as I go. I love meeting everyone, and I look forward to going back with Kiki.” It seems like Kiki, a 2-year-old, sandy-brown mixed terrier from a shelter in Texas, is ready too. During our walk down memory lane at the McLane Audubon Center, she stayed close to Willem’s side.

Willem’s stories reveal courage to keep going through all types of challenges, viewing them as opportunities to deepen his understanding of the world and of himself.

Thinking back to his first overnight in the woods, he explained that wild places can teach us quickly what it might otherwise take us a lifetime to learn. He recalled how he had grown up in central New York and one day hopped on a bus, carying an Army pup tent, cans of beans and a fishing pole. He finally made camp near a small stream, admiring the night sounds of the bubbling brook and whip-poor-wills, but feeling unsettled. In the morning, he packed up and hiked back to the bus. It took him a while to understand what was wrong. He was lonely.

Willem rows his Adirondack guide boat during the filming of a “Windows to the Wild” episode in Maine’s Casco Bay. Photo by Joe Klementovich

Maybe that’s what pushed him to join the Boy Scouts at age 12 (although he notes that the scoutmaster, Doc, also had a very sleek Model A Ford that purred down the street). His first Thanksgiving weekend scouting trip involved hours of map reading and retraced steps, struggles cutting down trees and trying to light fires for the cold — and lots of tears. Willem still takes inspiration from Doc, who comforted scouts back at the campfire and got everyone ready to try it again.

From experiences like that, Willem eventually became the director of the Dartmouth Outward Bound Center, leading outdoor education through hikes, climbs, paddling and skiing throughout New Hampshire, and also fishing and sailing in Penobscot Bay. “When you get outdoors, you have some problems to solve, issues to navigate, both alone and in groups,” Willem says. “That’s where initiative and growth occurs.”

After working with Outward Bound, Willem built and remodeled houses while living in Hanover with his wife, Ida, and three children. His family, faith and need to explore were constants. One of his toughest outings was in Baxter Park, Maine, when his youngest child was just a toddler. The family was canoeing down the length of a lake when gale force winds suddenly moved in. Two of his children had to hike on their own to camp, while Willem and Ida paddled with the youngest and the gear. When they reunited hours later, Willem sensed that their very survival depended on getting a strong fire going, but his family grew in resourcefulness and togetherness (he still has an 8-mm movie recounting the experience).

He’s candid about how his age impacts his adventures and is proud he’s now “fluent enough in Facebook” to show vintage photos. He told me about founding the Geriatric Adventure Society in 1973, a group of “staunch outdoor enthusiasts,” who he says prove “there’s life for the old guys yet.” This group of older men has problem-solved on skis and in kayaks and canoes across barren, frozen land and through small villages and dense forests in Alaska and the Arctic. Once, they just chose a river and went down it, learning later than no one else had ever recorded navigating it. A member of the group left an aluminum-frame pack behind along the river. On a return trip, 22 years later, they heard the wind whistling through something and found it was that same pack.

It was in 1981 that Willem began seriously writing about these adventures — and whatever else he wanted to write about. With his talent for storytelling and joy in connecting with people, his column led him to appear in a series of popular segments for Vermont Public Radio and hosting 13 seasons of “Windows to the Wild” on New Hampshire PBS. He’s won an Emmy for simply doing what he loves. Two of his favorite TV episodes are “Climbing Mount Katahdin” and “Meet Kiki,” and most of them can be streamed on NH PBS.

Our walk was my first time meeting Kiki, who playfully hopped on and off the rocks, yelped hello, and proudly perched at Willem’s side, showing off a light patch on her chest in her sandy-blonde fur. He always has one eye on her, even in the rare moments when she’s quietly resting between his feet. She’s sometimes anxious and skittish, like a young terrier can be, but he noted that she bravely crossed a suspension bridge over NH’s Dead Diamond River last spring.

The late John Sales and Willem in Baxter State Park, Maine, December 1955 Photo by Joe Klementovich

During our walk, I chuckled when Kiki barked and charged at some threat to Willem that we couldn’t detect, and then in a flaxen flash scampered to retreat behind him. He marveled at how she slightly cocks her head for far-off sounds, and described her first time prancing in fresh snow. “Without realizing what effect she has on me, she’s pulling me out of a dive that could have only ended in a crash,” Willem explains. “She appeared at my door in May of last year, and we’ve been inseparable ever since.”

Author Tom Ryan, who wrote memorably about the bond between a man and his dog in the outdoors with his book, “Following Atticus,” inspired Willem to adopt Kiki while he was taking care of his wife through her battle with terminal cancer. The dog became a source of wonder and healing for Willem. “Kiki helped with the transition between ‘my wife’ and ‘not my wife,’” he says.

Those who have read some of Willem’s essays probably know about the remarkable love he shared with Ida, and he tells how she literally pulled him out of a hole. It was 1959, and Willem was working as a contractor on State Street in Syracuse, New York. He was covered in mud, digging a manhole when Ida walked by. One look and he took off after her down the street. Perhaps it was due to his devotion and his adventurous spirit that 12 weeks later, on Halloween, they were married.

He says “Mother,” as he most often refers to Ida, was the purest of adventure seekers. In his book “A Yankee Notebook” he tells how, just after marrying, they moved to a small cabin in the Adirondacks. There Willem announced bobsled races and drove a taxi at night while Ida worked in a S&H Green Stamps store. “She hadn’t been much of an outdoors person,” says Willem, “Now suddenly she was living on the edge of the woods with a space heater she never did master, an old radio that got two stations … and no transportation unless I was home from work. She was an incredible blessing on my life.”

Toward the end of our walk together, he reflects on a few of the other people who have “enlarged” his life, and how “through the roughest patches, I’ve always had someone to help me.”

Now, along with the wisdom that comes with age, Willem still has incredible resilience. He uses moments of connection, like our encounter and the hundreds of others he has made, to keep reigniting his spark of adventure, even when it includes unexpected tears or a day of simply sitting. Though time is slowing him down a bit, he isn’t stopping and his enduring spark continues to inspire many, from a first-time hiker after a mid-life heart surgery to a veteran Marine healing from trauma. He says that time in the outdoors teaches us all to take care of each other.

When I hear he’s off to adventures in Scotland, I glimpse at the calendar, imagining another walk with Willem, maybe at Carter Notch, to share how I’m starting out as a director at Thompson Island Outward Bound this summer and to hear his Hurricane Island stories. And I grin, feeling my own spark, until we meet again.

Photo by Joe Klementovich

About The Author
Chaya Harris (taking notes at right with Willem Lange and Kiki) loves the outdoors and a great book, and is always looking for pizza with the perfect ratios. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh and then Northwestern, she taught in Boston public schools for almost a decade. She now serves as the director of curriculum and instruction at Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center and is a volunteer leader with Outdoor Afro.

Categories: People