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A Yankee Notebook

October 8, 2012


HAPPY CORNER, NH – It was an easy afternoon’s drive over here yesterday from Montpelier, so I took the time to stop at McDonald’s in Lancaster for a senior coffee and a couple of apple tarts to go. Then, where US Route 3 reached Indian Stream, I turned left and stopped for a few moments at the quiet little cemetery a few rods north. I often check the grave, up next to the back fence, of Minik, a Polar Eskimo brought south by Robert Peary who, after an unhappy, checkered career, died in a New Hampshire logging camp during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. His name is misspelled “Mene” on his tiny stone, but various visitors over the years have found it and brought little presents to leave near it – a miniature inukshuk, a bit of walrus ivory, small flowers.

Happy Corner sits astride Route 3 a few miles north of Pittsburg Village, on the way to the remote border station near Fourth Connecticut Lake. Pittsburg, at a little less than 300 square miles, is the largest town in New England, yet only 869 people called it home in 2010 – about three souls per square mile. Only one main road crosses it, but it’s laced with logging roads and recreational vehicle tracks. In the 1830s, because of disputes over where the international border was located, and since both nations involved claimed this area, the residents finally revolted and formed their own short-lived Independent Republic of Indian Stream.

North of the Corner, the road is dubbed Moose Alley. Hundreds of cars in season slowly cruise the highway with cameras ready, in search of at least one of them – much to the frustration of the drivers of logging truck and trailers. (Signs warn against stopping on the roadway.) The Corner is dominated by three establishments: Mountain View Cabins (our destination for the night), the barnlike Happy Corner Café, and the supermarket-sized Youngs Store. The same family owns ‘em all. Perry Stream, once one of the contenders for recognition as the Canadian border, flows past on its way to First Connecticut Lake, and in logging days this was a prominent junction.

One family in Perry Stream Crossing, as it was then called, had a Victrola, so their home became an informal Saturday evening gathering place. One thing led to others, and soon the place assumed the name of Happy Corner. It lives today on the income from logging, tourists, moose- and leaf-peepers, fishermen, hunters, and – most of all – snowmobilers. This week it’s grouse hunters; they’re everywhere, with orange vests and hats and dog whistles around their necks. You might think this the home of rugged rangers of the forests. Well, they’re rugged, all right; but almost nobody who lives here goes anywhere for business or pleasure without the aid of an internal combustion engine. The ambient background noise, winter and summer, is engine exhausts.

I generally arrive at these northern venues ahead of the rest of the crew, who drive from Durham after their day’s work. So I checked into the cabin, picked out a good bed, got ready for my usual evening toot, and realized to my horror that I had brought with me not one drop of the water of life. I gazed appraisingly across the road at Youngs Store; it looked to me as though it might have an oasis within it – a watering hole, as it were. I was right; and a few minutes later was lounging in a white plastic lawn chair on the front porch of the cabin as the darkness and evening cold settled down around an increasingly happy corner of northern New Hampshire. After a while, the crew showed up, along with the “winner” of this year’s New Hampshire Public Television auction of “A Day with the Crew.”

We’re here, north of the White Mountain notches, to talk and walk with a prodigious hiker and writer named Kim Nilsen, who’s recently published a guidebook titled [it] Fifty Hikes North of the White Mountains. [it] Kim fell in love with this country years ago. The high peaks of the Whites get all the attention, and hikers swarm over them all through the year. But here, just a few miles north, are hundreds of square miles of forests, laced with wild streams and punctuated by mountains up to about 3700 feet in elevation. Kim, who likes his hiking less crowded than it is in the high peaks, set out some years ago to establish marked trails all through this neck of the woods. He also writes as glowingly about this country as Leif Ericsson once rhapsodized about Greenland.

His major achievement has been the 165-mile Cohos Trail, which wanders north from Crawford Notch all the way to Fourth Connecticut Lake, a quiet beaver bog that backs up to the Canadian border. The trail is still being improved, with more leanto shelters planned, but it’s blazed and cleared the whole way. At the border it connects with a Canadian trail system that takes hikers even farther north. But he’s also inspired other trails – the fifty of the book title – and helped a crew of volunteers to cut and maintain them. They may lack the majesty of the bare tundra peaks just to the south, but they have their steep, rocky spots, too, where avalanches over the years have tumbled boulders down the mountainsides. And because of the relatively unbroken habitat, wetlands, and lack of crowds, they’re much richer in wildlife.

We started our day with a two-mile hike along the upper Connecticut River, here just a roaring, plunging stream between high banks. Some years ago Kim discovered a forgotten waterfall here. No one local knew about it; but piles of shattered rocks piled along the banks attest to long-ago blasting by river drivers to clear the flume for logs. A beautiful hike, with the rich aroma of fresh balsam thick in the air. In the afternoon, we took a half-hour hike up Prospect Mountain, perfectly named for its view – from the Whites in the south, and Maine in the east, to the Canadian border mountains in the north, and a broad-tailed hawk and kestrels overhead. Just east of us rose 3383-foot Mount Magalloway, which I think I’ll take another crack at next month during deer season. In any case, I’m sure to be returning to Happy Corner.

Photo by Willem lange