July 28, 2014
THE GREAT NORTH WOODS OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
NEW HAMPSHIRE, 44º50’N – We’re located almost halfway from the Equator to the North Pole here, but the land leans more toward the north than the south. There’s no hint of palmettos or magnolias here; the skyline is spiky with white spruces dominated here and there by great white pines. It takes little imagination to picture this forest continuing unchanged and unbroken from this parallel all the way to tree line in the Canadian Arctic. Along the way, the white spruces will give way to black, the white pines to jack, and the tamaracks will creep in, knee-deep in reindeer moss.
Along the river bottoms here, and in lowlands out of the wind, hardwoods dominate – yellow and white birch; silver, sugar, and soft maple; willows and alders. Some years ago there were still elms here in northern New Hampshire. Now the heavy, limbless trunks of their silvering corpses stick up from the brush beside the banks as we paddle past.
If, like me, you feel not quite at ease in southern forests of hickory, white oak, black gum, and hells of rhododendron alive with ticks and chiggers, these woods are home. As we sat on the porch at camp last evening, the occasional slap of an open hand on exposed skin was music to my ears. It meant that, though the mosquitoes were aloft, I was surrounded by veterans, tough cookies who didn’t think them fierce enough for bug repellent. In June, when the black flies hatch in their gazillions from the little brooks all around and whine bloodthirstily about my ears, I can’t help but reflect how happy the trout are to be feeding upon their teeming larvae – not to mention how effective they are in dissuading tourists from invading the woods.
It’s hard to believe that anybody would have left the relative civilization of southern New England and tried to make a pitch up here in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Harvard historian Francis Parkman called it “a howling wilderness.” The characters who did pack up and come here in hopes of an agricultural future were severally the toughest of the tough, lacked imagination, were seriously unhinged, or were seeking a refuge from the law.
In any case, when they began to settle here, they found themselves not men without a country, but men with two countries. The 1783 Treaty of Paris that established the boundary between the new United States and Canada was based on inaccurate sketch maps of the territory, so was likewise vague about its location. Both countries, for some inscrutable reason, coveted the disputed land, which didn’t cause too much trouble until both tried to levy taxes, collect debts with their respective bailiffs, and induct soldiers.
The settlers eventually had had enough, so in 1832 they formed the Republic of Indian Stream, independent of both nations. It was a republic, of about 300 people, from 1832 to 1835. In 1835, however, a Canadian sheriff arrested a “Streamer” for an unpaid hardware store bill in Canada. His fellow citizens went after him, peppered the Canadian judge’s house with musket balls, and freed him. Alarmed by the prospect of another war between Britain and the United States – over a hardware store bill! – the nations entered into negotiations. Indian Stream voted to join New Hampshire, and Britain relinquished its claim. In 1842, Lord Ashburton of Great Britain and Secretary of State Daniel Webster met in Washington, D.C., during its stifling, miasmic summer and hammered out a treaty establishing the border definitively. It’s just a bit north of me as I write.
Even if farming here had been a viable enterprise, the distance to markets would have been too difficult to overcome. Logging provided an alternative. It was still a long way to the sawmills, but two main rivers, the Connecticut and the Androscoggin, carried logs sometimes hundreds of miles downstream each spring. You can still see faint evidence of the loggers’ activity: stones that were once the foundations of bunkhouses or kitchens; middens full of the castoffs of the camps, including plenty of Lydia Pinkham bottles (an herbal remedy for “women’s complaints” that, incidentally, contained about 20% alcohol); bits of old dams still showing underwater, with the heads of long spikes sticking up and waiting for an unwary canoeist; boulders hand-drilled and blasted to smooth old tote roads; and in a patch of balsams, the faint outline of a long-gone bateau.
The logging has continued, more or less unabated, and more or less conscientiously, to the present day. One of the topics constantly on our minds as we meet here annually is the balance of wood production with the needs of wildlife, fish, and recreational users of the woods. In recent years the use of global positioning systems and Google maps have made surveillance more accurate and management decisions more science-based.
The most exciting things to me this weekend have been the results of a couple of studies of brook trout in the river just a few rods from the cabin door. For years we fishermen had assumed there were no trout in the main river anymore; at least we weren’t catching them. But one study, which implants locator chips in dozens of fish, has shown that they’re still there; they’re simply migrating during the summer because of logging-aggravated water temperatures, and returning in the fall to spawn. The second revelation, established by DNA tissue analysis of trout sampled by graduate students and fisheries biologists, has been that, far up two headwater feeder streams, cut off by waterfalls from the streams below, exist relict populations of genetically distinct brook trout. That’s amazing. They’ve survived, in spite of occasional disruptions by logging, ever since the Ice Age floods receded and isolated them there, some 10,000 years ago. Now, I don’t zip around these big north woods quite as nimbly as once I did, but I think a little fishing expedition might be in the offing – as soon as the mosquitoes let up a little.