Monday, March 27, 2017

More Notes from the Panic Hole

The following is the text of a guest blog posted today at Coös Networks, – – a community website serving the far northern precincts of New Hampshire.  Coös Networks has become an important meeting place for the exchanging ideas, sharing information, while "deepening relationships across disciplines and geography, and building regional vitality."  I thank Coös Networks for giving me an opportunity to contribute this guest blog.

“I have never seen a grander or more beautiful sight than the northern woods in winter.” With these words a young Theodore Roosevelt described his regular sojourns to a wilderness camp in northern Maine’s Aroostook County.  I could not agree with him more.  For the past several years I have been making regular trips to northern New Hampshire during the height of winter.  Trekking the ridges and hollows of the Great North Woods, hard on the Québec border has proven a palliative for whatever ails me at the time, and it has helped me put my life into perspective on more than one occasion.

Regardless of the season, this region has become my “panic hole” which, as defined by Gerald Vizenor, is a physical or mental place offering respite from the real or imagined pressures and stresses of daily life and the responsibilities that go with it.  Who could not use one of these?  Seven years ago, on one such winter trip, I trekked into the snowy back country above the Connecticut Lakes to consider retirement after a 32 year career with the Department of Justice, in Washington, DC.  What would the rest of my life hold for me?  The mind cleansed itself with each inhalation of the crisp, cold mountain air.  When asked why he liked the Middle Eastern deserts, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) supposedly replied: “Because it’s clean.”  The same can be said for the Great North Woods of New Hampshire in winter.  Trek into the snowy woods and you will not find anything so pristine . . . so clean . . . so quiet.  

Living as I do on the southern flank of the heavily urbanized megalopolis stretching from Washington, DC north to Boston, an occasional escape into the woods of rural New England helps lower the daily stress levels at home.   These trips always begin with a quick trip up to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport for the hour-long flight to Manchester.  As I wing north I watch the landscape below gradually turn white announcing the winterscape I am in search of.  Leaving Manchester I continue north through the White Mountains and “above the notches” into the Great North Woods to the roof top of New Hampshire.  I can feel the stress ratchet down the farther north I travel.  When folks back home ask me how far I go, I tell them “Until the road signs are in French.”

My most recent visit occurred this past January when I arrived the day after New Year’s Day.  What better way to celebrate the advent of a new year than a trip to the Great North Woods?  There is one constant here in late winter . . . the days are short.  Very 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 across the southern skies, setting around 4:30pm below the western height of land that marks the US-Canadian frontier. The sun had already set when I arrived at Tall Timber Lodge, along the shoreline of Back Lake, in Pittsburg.  I settled into my regular room upstairs, unpacked, and quickly returned downstairs to unwind with a couple adult beverages in the tavern before enjoying a long anticipated dinner in the Rainbow Grille.  I have been staying at this lodge for many years, and everyone knows my name and treats me like one of the family.  After dinner I step outside into the gripping cold and breathe in the fresh air and appreciate how lucky I am to be back again.  I have a nightcap in the tavern.  How can I not sleep well every night I am in the Great North Woods?   No reason to panic here.   

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast downstairs, I was off on my morning trek.  Driving up Moose Alley – US Route 3 above Happy Corner – passing Lake Francis and First and Second Connecticut Lakes, I parked at the Deer Mountain Campground where I strap on my snowshoes and set off along the Coös Trail through the Moose Falls Flowage and among the frozen outlet waters of the Third Connecticut Lake.  I have fished this area for brook trout in other seasons and so it was interesting to experience this familiar topography cloaked in deep snow.  It is not all downhill skiing or snowmobiling up here where speed seems to be the common denominator during the winter months. 

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 heavy-duty plastics and are much easier to navigate through deep snow.  My wife and I first tried these new-stye snowshoes a few years ago in western Montana and I was sold.    

As I wandered up through the Flowage along the Coös Trail I kept my eyes peeled for animal tracks, hoping I might be lucky enough to come across a shed, a moose or deer antler no longer required by its former proprietor.  No sheds; more than likely they are buried under the deep snow.  I did, however, chance upon several bevy of whitetail deer along the trail.  Approaching these from upwind I managed to get fairly close.  We stood there motionless for a few moments watching each other before they sprang quickly and quietly into the snowy puckerbrush, their white tails flashing in the morning light as they disappeared from sight.  The snow was over two feet deep, drifting even deeper in some places, so there was no clear path of escape.   For the deer or myself.  A trek through deep snow can be arduous.  Even with snowshoes.  

Eventually arriving at the northwestern shoreline of Third Connecticut Lake situated less than a mile below the Canadian frontier and the tiny Fourth Connecticut Lake (more of a bog than a lake) which is the headwater of the might Connecticut River, I braved the wind-abraded, snow-encrusted ice to visit a lone ice fisherman at his shanty where he was tending his tip-ups a short distance off shore.  We stepped inside briefly seeking shelter from two dervishing snow devils as they passed incredibly close by.   This reminded me again of my more youthful days when I joined my grandfather as  he fished the frozen ponds of southwestern Michigan.  One is truly alone with one’s thoughts sitting in an ice shanty on lonely lake.

The day was wearing on as the sun sank lower is the southern sky beyond Deer Mountain.  I continued up the trail to the US-Canadian border above the lake and from there I was able to catch a ride back to my car parked at the campground.  Good thing, too, as it began to snow quite hard.   It would have been a long walk back.   A full day and I was happy to make my way down to the lodge to change into warm, dry clothes before heading back to the tavern for a beer and the anticipation of another fine dinner in the Rainbow Grille.

I did not have anything as momentous as possible retirement to ponder on this visit to my panic hole, which is also one of my favorite places on God’s green (white?) earth.  It was just another pleasant opportunity to be far away from another human soul and alone with my thoughts as the vast expanses of snowy forests and lake ice stretched out before me.  Teddy was right.  It doesn’t get much grander than this!

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