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Flag raised yearly on Cannon Mountain for victims of 9/11

Special to the Union Leader

September 11. 2017 8:48PM
From left: Anne Cowles, Amy Swift, Jon Sykes, Kim Cowles and John Baker prepare to raise the flag Monday morning as the sun crests over Mount Lafayette. (MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL)

A waning moon hung in the still-dark sky above Cannon Mountain Monday morning as a crew of five hikers started uphill to complete what has become an annual mission.

In his pack, Jon Sykes carried a large American flag. The group’s destination: the granite ledge just above where the Old Man of the Mountain once watched over Franconia Notch. Sykes, with a changing cast of other hikers, has made this trek with similar cargo each Sept. 11 since 2002, missing only one, when the weather was too awful to reach the ledge. It’s the continuation of a tradition that started a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a way to pay tribute to the people who died that day and the ones who have died since.

“Some friends and I were watching a Red Sox game one night, and we came up with this idea” to fly a flag from the top of Franconia Notch, said Sykes, 59, a local climber and author of multiple White Mountain climbing guides. The VFW post in Littleton provided a flag, and a few weeks after the attacks four climbers ascended the Consolation Prize route up Cannon Cliff, carrying a 30-foot hornbeam pole and a flag. 

Back then, the Old Man was still in place, a seemingly timeless fixture in the Notch, and the flag hung over the famous profile. Although the state’s beloved icon crumbled in May 2003, the tradition of flying Old Glory from the spot each Sept. 11 has continued.

Now, the group takes a climbers’ access route, winding through a path as rocky and craggy as the Old Man himself to reach the ledge. The flag pole is stainless steel and between September 11ths is stashed amid the giant boulders strewn across the ledge. Several different flags have been raised there over the years. 

Kim Cowles secures an anchoring line to a cable once used to help hold the Old Man of the Mountain in place high above Franconia Notch. (MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL)

The one used that first year, Sykes said, spent time in Baghdad and was carried during a local parade to honor Sgt. David “D.J.” Stelmat, an Army medic from Littleton who was killed in 2008 while serving in Iraq. 

One year, Sykes’ father, Darrell, a World War II veteran, provided a flag from his VFW post. When the climbers returned at dusk that Sept. 11 to retrieve the flag, they found it had turned into a ball of tatters in the strong winds.

This year’s flag, a gift to Sykes from a friend, has been raised here in past years.

At the top of the steep ascent Monday, the sky was just lightening to pale pink as the flag-raisers arrived, but the sun was still tucked away behind Mount Lafayette. The wind blew ripples across Profile Lake, 1,200 feet below. Cars and semi-trucks, as small as toys from this vantage, hummed through the Notch as they do most every day. 

While the truckers and early morning commuters went about their business below, Sykes, John Baker, Amy Swift, Kim Cowles, and daughter Anne Cowles hauled out the flag pole, rigged the flag to the top, and raised it just as the sun tipped over Lafayette. Old Glory rippled and snapped in the gusty wind as the crew anchored the pole using a series of straps and cables. 

Then the hiking flag-raisers paused in a moment of silence, to remember those who died on Sept. 11, 2001 and to take in the serenity of a place high above everyday life.

“We want to say we’ll never forget. The attacks of that day are still very palpable,” said Sykes. “We’re just humbled by the whole process. When I go up there, there’s a certain peace once I get there. I think it’s appropriate that the flag flies from the top of the Old Man.”

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