On a still gray morning, the dog barked her "someone's here" bark, and an old friend, my oldest friend, in fact, stepped onto the front porch. I feigned disgust at seeing the old dub, as mutual mentor Rudy Shatney would say, but was not-so-secretly glad to see him, and ushered him into the kitchen, where I shoved some reading and note-taking aside so we could sit down at the counter and gab.
(A note on this kind of impromptu visit, long known as a barnyard stop: Frequently I get letters from readers who've driven long distances, from far below the notches, mainly to tour the countryside, but also to see where I live. The notes I get say, in general, "Drove by your farm and saw you out working but didn't want to bother you," to which I unfailingly reply, "For Pete's sake, you should have stopped."
So for Pete's sake, stop. Barnyard stops are one of the better aspects of this way of life.)
Ray and I sort of grew up together at Clarksville Pond, where I was living as an all-around helper and member of the family, and Ray came up frequently with his father to fish and hunt. This was in the late '50s and early '60s, when we were full of something and vinegar.
"You ought to come up to the house and see our horses," Ray said, instantly assuming a hangdog look, because he knew what was coming.
"Hay-burners?" I said, aghast. "You've got hay-burners? You don't even have any pasture. You're going to have to hay them year-round. And what about water in the winter?" Careful readers will pick out the fact that I've been through all this, and more.
"I'm going to get, what do you call those things, a device to keep the water in the tank from freezing," he said, defensively.
"A tank heater," I said. "You'll just love the statement from your power company. About a buck and a half a day. That's $45 added to your bill."
Shock spread over his face. He mumbled something about just letting his better half chop holes in the ice in the tank and lug buckets of water from the house. From this I discerned that the horses were her idea. I do not want to be there for the discussion on this. Better go to camp.
Talk quickly moved on to camp and fishing. "So, have you been to camp, Bub?" he asked, knowing full well that I'd gone in only once since spring breakup, a crying shame. And, of course, he regaled me with accounts of going in several times, not to stay in my camp but to fetch the oars from the porch rafters and caper down the boat trail to launch my 14-foot boat, which has only one leak so far and can be kept afloat by judicious use of a baling can, which can be put to another use if you don't want to go ashore or fall out of the boat.
The camp is near one of the oldest footpaths in the Great North Woods, a relic from the days when woodsmen and walking bosses and guides with clients shouldered pack-baskets and set off for far-flung places with an aplomb akin to today's adventurers going to a shopping mall, but way better. If one party met another on the trail, they'd stop to boil the tea, maybe smoke a pipe, and exchange news and pleasantries.
We talked about a fairly new logging road in the area near the town line between Stewartstown and Clarksville, a road I hadn't traveled and he had. It was hard to visualize new roads over old. "You know, it takes off from where the road to the old Raymond Ricker farm takes a sharp left, and goes east by south," he said. "It goes almost to the town line and then heads straight down to Deadwater."
Buckhorn Camp was a landmark that had, of course, a nice set of antlers over the front door, an unlocked camp - there were many such camps then - that had a sign over the door saying something like "This is Bill Fletcher's camp, built 1952. Use it if you need it; leave it as you found it. Signed, Bill Fletcher."
In hard weather, we'd often seek shelter on the porch, and if we had to go in and warm up, elsewise at risk of losing fingers, ears or other appendages on the long trudge home, we'd leave Bill Fletcher a note of thanks.
Now, at my hike-in, pack-basket camp, one of the few such camps left on the 171,000-acre Connecticut Lakes Headwaters Tract, there is a similar sign over the door.
Visitors most always leave notes. One gladdened my heart, another peeved me.
The first was from a bear biologist and wildlife photographer, a childhood friend. He had been waiting for just the right light and position to take an absolutely stunning photograph of a moose when the temperature plummeted and a snowstorm rolled in. He was shaking violently by the time he reached the camp. He of course left a note after his fingers thawed out and double-thanked me when we met later on the street.
The other note was written by someone who had obviously used the camp as a sort of resort and stayed overnight, forcing me to post a note on the porch wall.
"The sign means dire need," I wrote, wanting to add "You moron," but it was my fault. It's a new era, like it or not.
John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook, N.H. 03576, or email@example.com.