“I have never seen a grander or more beautiful sight than the northern woods in winter.” These are the words of a young Theodore Roosevelt describing his regular sojourns to a wilderness camp in northern Maine’s Aroostook County. I could not agree more.
For the past several years, as I have written here in earlier postings, I have been making regular trips to northern New England during the height of winter. Trekking the ridges and hollows hard on the border with Québec has proven a palliative and it has helped me put my life in perspective on more than one occasion. These environs have become my “panic hole” which, as defined by Gerald Vizenor, is a physical or mental locus offering respite from the real or imagined pressures and stresses of daily life and the responsibilities that go with it. That sounds about right. It was on one such trip three years ago that I headed into the snowy back country to consider retirement and what the rest of my life might hold for me. The mind cleanses itself with each inhalation of the crisp, cold mountain air. When asked why he liked the desert, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) supposedly replied: “It’s clean.” The same can be said for the Great North Woods of New Hampshire.
I watched the countryside gradually turn white as I flew north from Baltimore to Manchester, and from there I continued above the White Mountain notches into the north country at the roof tree of New Hampshire. There is one constant here in late January . . . the days are short. The sun does not inch above Mount Magalloway and the eastern ridge lines until around 7:30am, and from there it makes a slow arc above the southern horizon and sets around 4:30pm below the western height of land that marks the US-Canadian frontier.
One afternoon I trekked along the margins of the Third Connecticut Lake less than a mile below the Canadian frontier. I was looking for animal tracks and hoping I might be lucky enough to come across a shed, a moose or deer antler no longer required by its former proprietor. It is not all downhill skiing or snowmobiling up here where speed seems to be the common denominator. I prefer snow-trekking, the slow and often painstaking movement across deep snow and ice. Slow is good. You can see what there is to see in the winter landscape while enjoying a silence interrupted only by the sound of wind blowing through bare, creaking branches. I first snowshoed on my grandparent’s Michigan farm when I was a kid. Back then it was the old wooden frames and webbing made of deer hide. Now snowshoes are constructed of tempered steel, aluminum, and plastic and are much easier to navigate. My wife and I first tried these new-stye snowshoes a few years ago in western Montana and I was sold.
I chanced upon several whitetail deer on the trail. I approached from upwind and got fairly close before we made eye contact. The snow was over two feet deep in most places, and drifting even deeper, so there was no clear path of escape. We stood there . . . motionless for a minute or so, watching each other. Soon it tired of this and it sprang quickly and quietly into the snowy puckerbrush.
I did not have anything as momentous as possible retirement to ponder on this visit to one of my favorite places on earth. It was just a pleasant opportunity to be far away from another human soul and alone with my thoughts as the vast expanse of ice stretched out before me with miles of unbroken and snow laden forests beyond. Teddy was right. It doesn’t get much grander than this!