November 17, 2014
PILGRIMAGE TO HELL GATE
HELL GATE, NH – Seems like a strange name for a shrine, doesn’t it? But a shrine is what it is, for several of us here this week. Not quite on the order of the Ka’aba in Mecca, or the Western Wall, or Canterbury Cathedral, or Santiago de Compostela. But each November, during deer season, Hell Gate draws half a dozen or so pilgrims to the junction of 44º 58’ 27” N and 71º 06’ 55” W. Some bring rifles, orange jackets and hats; others, mostly older by a generation, bring books, reading lights, and decades of memories.
Hell Gate lies on a grant of forest land owned by Dartmouth College. It’s a small, vertical-sided gorge only about ten yards wide that drains a broad wetland formed by the Dead Diamond River in far northern New Hampshire. At its lower end, it debouches over a couple of low waterfalls into a wide, shallow, gravel-lined pool that long ago harbored five-pound brook trout. It apparently was given its name by river drivers, who had somehow to squeeze their winter harvest of long logs through that gut. At one time there was a dam across the gorge at its upper end in which the drivers stored water for a sudden spate that would wash the logs through the narrow rock walls and into the meandering river below. The dam is long gone now, but the gorge can still be tricky: An elderly canoeist drowned here during the spring high water in 1994.
For many years the flat flood plain just below the falls was a logging depot camp – horse hovels, blacksmith shop, bunkhouse, kitchen and dining hall, and offices. Before that, prior to the mass clear-cutting of the north woods, there had been a sporting camp here that downcountry dudes repaired to for fishing, hunting, and rusticating. When the depot camp was abandoned sometime around the Depression, one cabin was left standing. I first knew it, during the ‘60s, as “the Fish and Game Camp,” where employees of the department went for recreation. Legend had it that it was closed when then-Governor Thomson suspected them of having too much fun there.
The cabin slowly moldered and sank into the soil beneath it. The roof began to leak; the calking between the logs fell out. Occasional floods washed around it. One man recalled spending a night watch outside the door with a pole, fending off floating ice blocks that threatened the posts of the porch. It was derelict. A large pile of soaked 1950s Playboy magazines lay in one corner.
It was plain that the old cabin hadn’t long to live, and it was dangerous, besides. The obvious solution was to burn it down. But tradition is a powerful force at Dartmouth, and this was one of the last of the old camps that had once been part of logging history in the north woods. Donations of money and a lot of effort picked it up, moved it s few hundred yards, and set it on a new foundation. A bunkhouse attached by a covered walkway houses enough people to fill the dining table in the main cabin to overflowing, and a big Defiant stove heats the place.
My pilgrimage experience is pretty much limited to hiking chunks of the Compostela trail in France and fifty years of hunting camp in the Adirondacks. The Adirondack camp is gone now, and I can’t get to France much anymore; so this annual trip has become all the more precious.
The journey moves me from a temperate climate to a much colder one. I left Montpelier in early afternoon, planning to arrive here before full darkness. In the stubble fields just east of the capital, flocks of Canada geese were gleaning and resting, waiting for a wind. East of Marshfield, the forest of tamaracks in the low land was gone by, and bare; folks from away will regret the apparently great number of dead trees. Not far beyond them, descending the big hill into St. Johnsbury through a canyon of evergreen, I felt once again the cool, quiet charm of a horizon spiky with white spruce. Still farther, the setting sun lighting up the sparse pink clouds was mirrored in the heaving waves of the Androscoggin River in the Thirteen-Mile Woods.
Darkness caught me just as I approached the locked gate into the College Grant. I chatted briefly with Lorraine at the inner gate and gave her dogs little treats. She raised the gate bar, and I drove on in. Twelve miles to go. The logging road was wet with recent rain. Weird lights flickered in the bare tree branches over the road in front of me: my headlights reflected by the puddles.
Finally, a few pickups parked beside the road. I climbed out and loaded up – headlight on my forehead, small duffel bag and a six-pack of Molson’s in one hand, cane in the other with its winter spike extended. I suspected the long suspension bridge across the river might be icy.
It was. It wobbled under my feet, and the rush of the river beneath it added another distraction. It felt a lot like the last challenge before the treasure room in an Indiana Jones adventure. Head down; small steps; watch your feet in the headlamp light; don’t stick your cane between the boards; and then I was down the ramp on the other side, with the cabin lights in view.
That was two days ago. The next evening – last night – the boys brought in a nice big seven-point buck that’s hanging from a purlin between the bunk room and the main camp. The first icicles of the year, the product of last night’s snow, hang from the eaves. I’m sitting on the porch trying to keep warm in the north wind and enticing the Canada jays to the corn bread in my hand. They don’t seem as eager as usual, but I’ve figured out why. That carcass, its open cavity ripe with fresh suet, has been commanding their attention for hours. The quiet little gods of this shrine are ignoring my offering. But no matter. If the coming year spares me, I’ll be back, and they’ll still be here, as they have been forever, and I’ll try to hold communion with them again.