When a trip down a dirt road is like a trip down the river

April 06. 2013 7:52PM

SWERVING AROUND pot-holes the other day on my commute, the antithesis of a Los Angeles commute, I thought of a canoe trip with Dirk Ruemenapp.

My commute is three and a half miles of rural road, often featuring moose, deer, bears and the occasional coyote. It is not at all like the beltline around Manchester, whence came the drama about the canoe.

Dirk, an otherwise sensible guy who is now a Pooh-Bah at the Union Leader, foolishly agreed to go on a canoe expedition from the confluence of the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset rivers, in Franklin, to as near the New Hampshire-Massachusetts state line as we could get. This goal dealt more with boredom and energy than geography.

"Portage," often pronounced wrong (it's "port-ajj,"), meaning "lug your canoe around," figured big in this trip. We had to portage around Sewall's Falls, just north of Concord, and again around Garvin's Falls, and again around the falls at Hooksett, one of my very favorite places in the state.

It is one of the neatest free-running stretches of the Merrimack, a place where, on the Pinnacle, Abenakis and offshoot tribes made camp, to get out of the bugs, let the breeze carry campfire smoke away, and be on the lookout for enemies. On the east side, where the first settlers' houses and barns went up, a great eddy swirls, a timeless place.

Portaging around the Amoskeag Falls was an adventure, to put it mildly. We were pretty ragged by that point, muddy and wet. To commuters we must have looked like wharf-rats.

Just below the first mills, we put in. "I scouted it from here," I said to Ruemenapp, as it turned out false words. I'd scouted it, all right, but from the bridges, not riverside.

Just below the 293 bridge there is what looks like a mild little drop-off. It is not mild. We managed to get to the east bank above it. A steep drop, we concurred.

"Tell you what," I said to Dirk, "you get right up into the bow and wedge your chest in there and hang on tight, and maybe, if the gods are smiling favorably, you'll deflect most of the water that might seek to drown us when we drop into that awful slough there, the slough you might be better off not thinking about, you moron for believing this, and in the meantime I'll paddle my guts out to get us out of danger." Well, it was something like that.

He did, and I did, and we slewed around and (obviously) survived the drop-off. Somewhat below Goff's Falls we stopped where a big pine tree signified high and solid ground, and built a fire and laid our bedding out, and had a fine time cooking supper.

This place was about halfway from Hooksett to Merrimack. The big pine tree is still there, which I know because whenever I'm along Route 3A, taking the road I prefer, I look for it, thinking about that fine night so long ago.

The next day we made it to just above the Hudson bridge in Nashua, and clambered up the muddy west bank to have supper with Mike and Barbara Shalhoup, where Mike regaled us with far-fetched tales about my very first newspapering days at the Nashua Telegraph.

As for the pot-holes on South Hill Road, my daily commute, they have a life of their own, despite the best intentions of the best grader, to be steered around like rocks in the river.

John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook, NH 03576, or hooligan@ncia.net

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