November 14, 2011
HELLGATE – AWAY FROM IT ALL
HELLGATE, COOS COUNTY, NH – Just a year ago, I took a critical look at the sagging, gap-toothed condition of the wall-mounted clothes pegs in this cabin, and rashly promised (out loud) that I’d make some new ones and bring them with me this hunting season. All year long the little sheet of paper with the measurements on it sat in my to-do box, slowly sinking through the Pleistocene, through the Jurassic, and finally down into the Ordovician. I looked for it in a panic about a week ago, fearing it might have joined the Archaean, where fossil scraps of paper go to disappear – and there it was! My shop floor is pretty well sawdusted now, and the spar varnish on the new shelves and pegs dried to the touch only scant hours before it was time to load them into the truck and head north. But they’re up on the camp walls now, and people sleeping beneath them have a place to hang their shirts and pants and put their shaving kits, glasses, books, and teeth before they retire for the night.
The hunters in camp retire about half-past eight to a quiet bunkhouse a few feet away from the main camp. The non-hunters, who can go back to bed after the nimrods take off in the morning, sit quietly at the table afterward with headlamps and lanterns. They read, fill out their journals, or correct proofs. Their lamps go out one by one as the hours go by, until finally only the sounds of soft snoring, the ticking of the stove and the occasional thump of a falling chunk of firewood inside, and the pelting of rain, snow, or wind on the metal roof disturb the utter silence and darkness.
Hunting camp as a cultural ritual extends in a great swath across North America from the Rocky Mountains all the way to the woods of Maine. People who haven’t “been to camp” nurture different images of what happens there. Many imagine it a scene of unrestrained, alcoholic bacchanalia. Da Yoopers, a bunch of musical comedians from the Upper Peninsula (get it?) of Michigan, have done a lot to encourage this misperception with songs like “The Second Week of Deer Camp” (which you can Google).
I’ve never found that to be the case in any of the camps I’ve visited since 1957, my first deer season overnight experience in. Sure, there’s whiskey on a sideboard, and there are icicles to be broken off from beneath the eaves to cool it, but euphoria is generally disdained. I had my first experience with it my very first evening in camp. Jim Brown, the old guide who owned the place, was pouring for everybody, and asked if I wanted some. “Sure!” I said, in what I hoped were manly tones. The old rascal poured me fully half a cylindrical porcelain coffee cup of Jim Beam.
I finished it all right, and couldn’t tell whether I felt it at all; but when I sat down to supper – venison chops, mashed potatoes, and green peas – I found I could cut the meat just fine, and scoop up the potato, but I was damned if I could keep the peas on my fork long enough to get them into my mouth. So I waited till I thought no one was looking, hooked them into my left hand with my fork like a pharmacist counting pills, and popped them into my mouth.
I assumed I was getting away with it, when suddenly Jim leaned over, said, “Here! Gimme that fork!” and started mixing my peas and mashed potatoes together. “There!” he said, “I guess you can keep ‘em on your fork now, all right.”
For fifty years I went to the same camp, on the eastern edge of the high peaks of the Adirondacks. The patriarch of the place set the tone, which ran toward tactics and coordinated campaigns worthy of a field marshal. Meals were a serious business, too, (He muttered a standard Roman Catholic grace before each supper), and the conversations were of the day’s plan of attack or, in the evening, the information gathered during the day. He alone kept things stable; and when he died, the resulting changes led inevitably to the sad dissolution of the whole enterprise.
I don’t see that happening here at Hellgate, in my lifetime, at least. To begin with, Dartmouth College owns and restricts access to the place, which imposes a certain mild expectation of gentility upon its ambiance. Second, there needs to be some connection between the College and those who rent its cabins; that ensures a spirit of moderation that might otherwise be ignored. Third, tradition runs deep here, deeper than this current crop of hunters. The cabin itself, quite old, was rescued from disintegration by being moved at considerable expense to its present location from another, and extensively rebuilt and modified. It’s named for a famous and intrepid hunter from the class of 1925, the uncle of the current patriarch, and whose photograph hangs on the wall. Each morning Uncle Pete’s memory is celebrated with a concoction of his, a potent mixture of grapefruit juice and Brugal rum – after which the celebrants do up the breakfast dishes and usually go back to bed.
For me, it’s a chance to get away from, if not daily concerns, at least the constant reminders of them. A chance to listen to rain, sleet, snow, or wind beating upon a metal roof; to listen to the rumble of firewood being stacked in the big wooden box beside the stove, and the squeak of the stove door as someone opens it to feed it a chunk of hard maple. The stars, with no competition, shine as brightly here, almost, as they ever have anywhere. The roar of the falls at Hellgate, just above us, fills the background as it has for millennia. And the Canada jays, just as I hoped, come flitting around the porch to see what we have to donate to their winter food shelf. There are three of them: two adults and one young one almost full-size. After they took away the bread chunks that Jack had put out for them, I held up my hand with a cashew in it, and they – very carefully at first, then more confidently – flew to it, gripped my fingers trustingly with their claws, and picked up the nut. I felt like a priest sharing communion – not inappropriate at all, in this almost holy place.