John Harrigan's Woods, Water & Wildlife: Wooded trails before the 'Big Cut' came

August 09. 2014 11:10PM

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, on one of our typical Saturday morning truck tours, we passed a particular spot along the Deadwater Loop Road just south of Pittsburg's Lake Francis, and I made a note: "Cool story for a hot day." The spot has changed over the decades, but I can still descry it, a little patch of spongy ground that marks the beginning of one of the old woods trails of yore.

Back in the 1880s and '90s, before the Big Cut had reached into the farthest-flung heads of valleys, before horses and bulldozers and finally skidders reached far into the Great North Woods, a marvelous system of foot trails traversed the land. These were formed and reformed by trappers, hunters, explorers, guides and their clients, and everyone else who traveled them.

"Could save a mite if we went the other side of the Big Ledge," someone would say, and a bit of work hacking and gouging out a new section of trail and blocking the old section with brush made it so. "The trail's straighter or I'm getting faster," one wizened denizen of the times told me one day at the barbershop.

I was privileged to discover this section of the old foot path network because during my later years living with Rudy Shatney of Clarksville Pond fame I helped him guide, which meant that I helped put the clients where they should be and then trotted back to help Rudy drive a patch, meaning moving through the woods to jump deer, hopefully toward the clients.

On this day, so crystalized in my mind at the age of 15, I was the rear guard in a procession of eight men headed from the valley of Deadwater Stream over into Labrador Brook. This is the basin that drains the Carr Pond territory, an awful place to chase deer, and so, naturally, the deer love it.

There, at the end of the trudging line, I passed between sections of a huge pine tree, a giant whose diameter reached well above my waist. The further we climbed, the more the trail went through cut-out sections of old-growth trees. Moss, layer upon layer, grew on the old cuts.

It was one of the few remaining sections of the old foot path network, a savvy way to get from one watershed to another. These were passages cut by travelers of the woods bearing axes and cross-cut saws, indispensible tools.

I thought about Thoreau, always talking about encountering strangers and stopping to boil the tea, and the Pittsburg Guides' Association, perennially holding water-boiling contests without its younger audiences having any clue as to what it was all about.

In the days of the foot paths, an encounter went like this.

There was a startling moment - two comets colliding in the cosmos, there in the wilderness. If the two men knew and liked each other, they'd stop and shake hands and sit and boil the tea, a quick affair involving a green sapling stuck in the ground over a very fast fire. It was a welcome respite from the travails of the day.

If the two knew and didn't like each other, they'd just nod, and step on.

John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook, NH 03576, or

ColumnOutdoorsJohn HarriganNew Hampshire

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