In a Wintry Wilderness

NORTH of the Sandwich Mountains, inclosed by a circle of sombre peaks, there once lay a beautiful lake. Centuries ago its outflowing stream, now called Swift River, cut so deeply between the spurs of Chocorua and Bear mountains that the greater part of the lake drained away into the Saco at Conway, leaving its level bed a fair and richsoiled intervale.

By the road upon which the lake went out man in time came in, and founded in the bosom of the spruce-grown mountains a small but comparatively prosperous settlement. Having seen this hidden valley in summer, and taken account of its rare beauty and its remoteness from the wearisome machinery of the world, I yearned to know its winter charms, feeling sure that they would surpass those of summer as the fairness of snow surpasses the fairness of grass. Accordingly, in the latter part of December, 1891, I went by rail with a friend to Chatauque Corner, and thence by sleigh up the weird pass between Chocorua on the south and Moat and Bear mountains on the north, gaining at nightfall a warm haven in one of the snug farmhouses in the middle of the intervale.

The township of Albany knows no priest or physician, squire or shopkeeper, and in its coat of arms, if it had one, the plough and rifle, axe and circular saw, would be quartered with bear and porcupine, owl and grouse. From the head of the intervale the people are forced to travel nearly thirty miles to reach and bring home their mail and groceries. In spite of these drawbacks, the permanent residents are intelligent, thrifty, well housed, and well informed of the world’s doings. Though their only road to the outside is long and rough, they let no moss gather on it in summer, and no snowdrifts blockade it in winter. Setting out for this far valley in midwinter, I felt something of the explorer’s thrill as he turns towards the unknown, and leaves home and comforts behind. Hie distant and the difficult of attainment are always seen by the mind through a golden haze, and although no fair Lorna drew me to her rescue, and no lawless Doones barred my way through the grim passes which led to the valley, romance and the spice of danger seemed mingled with my enterprise. As the journey progressed, and one stage of it after another slipped past, unreal gave way to real, and commonplace supplanted marvelous. Even when night fell, as we entered the valley, the light which gleamed afar through the spruces told of hospitality as truly as the sleigh’s ample furs spoke of comfort, and the keen wind of health.

We reached the valley on the evening of Saturday, December 19, and enjoyed every moment of our stay, which was prolonged until Saturday, the 26th. From my journal, written on the evening of each day, I take the following account of two of our tramps over the snow and through the dark and chilly forests.

Wednesday, December 23, dawned under a damp sky. Tripyramid kept on his nightcap, and patches of mist clung to the dark precipice of Passaconaway. The mountains looked higher and more threatening than on previous days, and they seemed closer to us than when the sun shone. A whisper of falling drops and settling snow ruffled the morning calm. Nevertheless, patches of blue sky showed in the west, and once or twice a silvery spot in the clouds suggested the sun’s burning through. We went first to see our favorite flock of birds at the cattle trough in the pasture. They were there in full force, nearly if not quite a hundred strong. They allowed me to come within about twenty feet of them, and to watch them narrowly through my glass. Rather more than half were red crossbills. Of the remainder, two thirds were pinefinches, and one third goldfinches. No redpolls were to be seen. The coloring in the crossbills was amazingly diverse. There were very brilliant males with cinnabar tints wherever such color is ever found. From this maximum of intensity their coloring graded downward through partial red markings on the one hand, and through gradually fading red markings on the other. I saw one bird with red on his rump only. The fading from red to yellow yielded many gradations of red and yellow or orange down to pure gold. The brown birds were the more numerous, and they seemed to have various combinations of light and dark, with now and then suggestions of bright tints. In some individuals the mandibles crossed in one way, and in others the opposite way. In size the crossbills varied widely. Often, in glancing quickly at a group, I mistook the smaller, duller birds for pinefinches. A dozen times in as many minutes the flock whirled upwards and round and round, showering the air with their delicious medley music. Generally from three to six old birds remained in one of the two spruces near the fence by the trough, and a sharp call from them brought the flock down again like a fall of hail.

When we had walked a mile up the valley a shower struck us, and we waited a few moments under the shelter of an old house, from which the wall boards had been removed. We heard sweet bird notes, but could not locate the singers. When we turned to go, however, a flock of sixteen snow buntings rose from a field where they had been feeding in the yellow grasses, and vibrated away with merry calls until swallowed up in fog and rain. The wasting of the snow under the hot sun of Monday and the cloudy sky but mild air of Tuesday had left many plants and dried flower stalks exposed to view. Plum-colored masses of berry bushes encroached upon the wide expanse of snow, as headlands reach out into a calm sea. Tiny forests of wiry grass reared their heads above the snow. In color they were what is called “sandy.” Goldenrod and aster stems, holding aloft dry and brittle suggestions of long-lost flowers; the heads of brunella, looking like chess castles, and of the Indian pipe, upright and pineapple-shaped ; and many delicate hairlike stems, from which all trace of leaf and flower had departed, broke the evenness of the snow fields, and were beautiful in an unassuming, unconscious, unintentional way. Indeed, many of them had never shone with beauty before. In summer, submerged in the wilderness of green things which crowd the unploughed intervale, they could not have been found by the eye of any one in chance passing. But in winter, the time of their nominal beauty gone, they lingered in their old age, and looked more beautiful in their bleached simplicity than those summer flowers which never gave them a chance to reveal what was in them.

At the end of the intervale, instead of plunging into the woods where our barred owl lived, we turned southward towards the foot of Passaconaway. The rough road led through the forest to a sawmill under the shoulder of the first ridge of the mountains. Downes Brook had been partially dammed to form a pond, upon which hundreds of logs lay awaiting their fate. At the foot of the dam stood the mill. Its lower story was an engine room. A steam engine of considerable power worked four saws, a planer, and an endless chain used to draw in logs from the ice. At the dam end, these logs were being drawn in upon the floor, measured and marked. Then they went to the first and largest saw, which cut off their slabs, reduced them to boards or planks, and sent them along to the second saw to have their ends squared. From the second saw they went to the third, where their sides were made equal, and thence through the planer, out at the lower end of the mill, down a chute to a platform where they were piled ready to be hauled away. The fourth saw was used to cut the slabs and edge-cuttings into the right lengths for fuel; for not only the engine demon in the under story fed on wood, but all the people in the intervale burned slabs. About twelve men were employed in the upper part of the mill, some Americans, some French Canadians, and some Irishmen. One young Frenchman was a picture of dirty beauty and health. His jet-black hair, reeking with oil, was plastered in a curve over his forehead. His mustache was curling, and his snapping eyes, dark skin, rosy cheeks, and powerful but rather gross body made a striking picture for a day laborer.

Leaving the mill, with its distracting noise, we ascended the main logging road towards Passaconaway. It follows Downes Brook southward, now clinging to one hillside, then crossing the icebound torrent by a rude but massive bridge of spruce logs to stay for a while on the opposite bank. On each side the timber had been cut and hauled away. The survival of the unfittest is the rule in the forest after the lumber thief has been through it. He leaves the crooked, the feeble, and the diseased trees, and packs around their roots the fertilizing branches and tops of the logs which he hauls away. On our way up we met several teams coming down the slippery, sloppy road. Two strong Canadian horses, low sleds, three great logs chained together and to the sleds, and an oily, tobacco-chewing French Canadian made up a team. We stopped and talked to one driver, who said that if the snow went off they would keep on with their hauling, using the runners on the bare ground. While he chatted with us he fed his nigh horse on pieces of chewing tobacco, which the horse took from his fingers or bit from the plug. We were told later that this is a common form of attention for the drivers to show their favorite horses. The horse swallowed the tobacco. About half a mile above the mill we came to the logging camp. There was a compact log stable, a log smithy manned by a sturdy Frenchman in moccasins who spoke very little English, and a living-house made of slabs covered with tarred paper well battened down. The house stood on a ribbon of ground between the road and the steep edge of the torrent. Entering through a low shed at the southern or upper end of the shanty, we found ourselves in the kitchen and dining-room. The room contained two cook-stoves, and three long, narrow board tables with benches facing them. The tables were set for thirty-five men, allowing about twenty inches of space for each man. We were welcomed by the cook, a New Englander, who boasted of having cooked in lumber camps for twenty years. He prided himself on his bread, and cut a loaf to show its quality. I never ate bettor bread anywhere. The dishes on the table were simple, — tin plates, tin cups, bottles of vinegar, pitchers of maple syrup, tins holding mountains of yellow butter, and plates piled high with “fried holes,” as doughnuts are graphically termed. Baked beans are a staple dish, but I noticed a barrel of pork at the door, and lying on the woodpile a big bundle of codfish and a side of beef certified as good by Hon. Jere. Rusk.

The sleeping-room of the camp was not attractive. It was dark, hot, stuffy in odor, and overcrowded. Rude bunks, three tiers deep, lined the side walls. The men turn into these pens with their clothes on, often wet with rain or snow. Teamsters are roused at four A. M. ; the rest of a “ crew ” somewhat later. In winter, four A. M. and midnight are equally gloomy, and if either is colder it is the morning hour. The cook said he could remember but one case of serious illness in his logging camps. The grip, he said, seldom kept a man from work more than one or two days. He expressed great fondness for birds, and spoke of the daily visits of crossbills, and in some years of moose birds. “They know their friends, as most dumb beasts do,” he declared, and went on to tell of a terrible storm of snow and sleet which came one winter, threatening death to his pets. “ I just opened my camp doors and called and whistled to my birds, and in they came, dozens of ‘em, until every beam and perch in the camp was full of ’em.”

We strolled up the road for a mile or more beyond the camp. At several points deposits of logs had been made at the sides of the road. Several hundred logs lay in each pile. Near by, hemlock bark was stacked in long rows, flanking the road. We crossed the torrent twice on spruce bridges, and each time gained a magnificent view of Passaconaway. It was framed in black clouds, rushing masses of vapor, and dark hillsides still laden with forests. In the foreground was the foaming stream, boulder-choked, bounding towards us. From this side Passaconaway shows no peak; it is simply a somewhat worn cube, to whose precipitous faces the forests cling and the snows freeze. Its coloring is dark in any light, but as we saw it through the gathering storm of that late December day a more forbidding mountain mass could hardly be imagined. It was so near us, yet so high above us; so black, so cold, so lonely, yet so full of nature’s voices, the wailing of wind, the cruel rush of waters, the weird creaking of strained trees. The stream, with its greenish waters hurling themselves over the boulders, and fretting against the ice sheets projecting from the banks, seemed like a messenger rushing headlong from the mountain to warn us back from impending danger.

Resting for a while under the shelter of a giant hemlock, we called the birds. Two or three chickadees and two kinglets came to us, but they were subdued by the storm and shy about getting wet. Then we walked briskly homeward, the rain falling in earnest during the latter part of the way. A snowy fog rose from all parts of the valley, spreading most rapidly from the western end. The flat fields of snow vanished first; then the damp veil crept up the dark spruces and hid their tops ; and finally mountain peak after mountain peak surrendered to the rising tide, and we were left alone in the dense fog, with only a narrow circle of steaming snow around us. As the day wore on, rain fell faster and harder, the wind rose, it grew colder, and the blackness of the winter night would have been terrible but for the peace and comfort within doors. On such a night, the deer in their “yards ” must shiver with the chilling dampness ; the grouse must find the snow too wet to sleep in; and foxes and rabbits, if they leave their dens and forms at all, must regret the hunger which drives them out. Where are the crossbills and siskins ? I wish that I knew and could find them out, and take a friendly look at their ruffled feathers, their heads tucked under their wings, and perhaps dozens of their plump little bodies snuggled together in a dark, dry spruce.

Christmas Day was warm, cloudy at best, densely foggy at worst. Soon after breakfast we were swinging westward up the valley road, determined to find Sabba Day Falls, or perish in the attempt. As we passed the crossbill feeding-ground, no birds were in sight, but a moment later, high in the air, we heard bird voices. Looking skyward, we saw a flock of from one to two hundred birds whirling round and round, like ashes drawn upwards over a fire. They were at a very great height, and were gradually rising. As they increased their distance they disappeared and reappeared several times ; then they vanished wholly, swallowed up in the high air. I think they were our crossbills, goldfinches, and siskins, and that they were soaring in search of fair weather, perhaps intending to migrate to some other favorite haunt. Christmas Day is not a time when one expects much color in a White Mountain landscape, but the warm air, the moisture, and the contrasts against snow below and fog above combined to produce and to make evident a great deal of exquisite tinting in the shrubs of the fields and the forests of the mountain spurs. As we strode up the line of yellow mud which made the road, our path was bordered by shallow snow, from which sprung an abundant growth of hardhack and spiræa. Taken in masses, their stems made a rich maroon, somewhat dull near by, but warm and deep when seen across an acre of snow. A foot or two higher than these small shrubs were viburnums and small cherry and maple trees growing along the skirts of the forest. Their general tone was also dull red, though somewhat brighter than the spiræa. The next band of color was ashy mottled with dark green, and made probably by young birches, poplars, beeches, and hemlocks.

Then came a belt of fog mingled with snowy smoke from the sawmill, and above that a broad band of ashes-of-rose color, formed by the upper branches and twigs of the common deciduous trees. Above all were the spruces, always dark except when the piercing eye of the sun reveals the wonderful golden olive which they keep for him alone.

The smoke of the sawmill showed that the timber-eater finds no time for remembering the birthday of Jesus. Teams were moving as usual, carrying the green lumber down to the railway. The men employed to demolish our forests are poorly paid. A dollar a day and board is what the French Canadian receives here. Board is called fifty cents a day, and the married workman with a houseful of children lives on that sum.

We passed the home of a French Canadian known in the valley as Bumblebee. The house is twelve feet long by ten feet deep. The ridgepole is twelve feet from the ground. The chimney is a piece of stovepipe. The walls are made of boards, battened, and the roof is unshingled. Bumblebee has five children, the eldest being eight. His wife’s mind is affected. The standing timber, the mill, the lumber railway, and many of the dwellings and small farms belong to non-residents, whose only object is to shear the mountains, squeeze the laborers, and keep Congress from putting lumber on the free list.

Not far beyond Bumblebee’s oneroom house we entered the primeval forest. We were following the trail through the snow made by us on Sunday. When a quarter of a mile in, we were surprised to find a bear track crossing our path at right angles. The huge brute had passed that way on Tuesday or Wednesday, judging by the condition of the snow. On reaching the spot where we had aroused a barred owl on Sunday, we hid under some small hemlocks, thereby getting a thorough sprinkling, and I hooted. After my third attempt,

I saw a great bird fly through the woods to a point only a hundred yards distant. In a moment or two I hooted again, and then made the fine squeaking noise which a mouse makes. The owl came nearer, and at once began hooting. During nearly ten minutes, in which we kept up a lively exchange of hoots, he varied his notes in several ways, sometimes keeping on, without pausing, from one series of hoots to another. I never heard a more talkative owl. At last he flew into a tree so near us that I could see him clearly through my glass. As he hooted, his throat swelled and pulsated. He searched the trees and the ground with his keen dark eyes. When at last he saw me, I seemed to feel the force of his glare. Then he turned his head to the left and flew away with long, soft sweeps of his wings. At a distance he resumed his hooting, which we could hear for some time, as we strolled on up Sabba Day Brook. What we had supposed to be the river, on Sunday, proved to be Sabba Day Brook itself. The water was high, most of the ice had gone, and all the small brooks poured in liberal streams. In one pool I observed a small trout. At last we heard the thunder of the falls, and looked forward eagerly to see them. The stream seemed to issue from the solid rock, for directly across the channel rose a cliff of dark granite, crowned with black spruces and one or two pines whose lofty tops were pale in the fog. As we drew near, the majestic beauty of the place became apparent. At the foot of the black cliff was a deep pool full of strange colors, — greens, olives, and white. The waters in it were restless, rising and settling back, but forever washing the sides of their basin. Four gigantic icicles hung from the top of the cliff, extending to the bottom. One of them, at its lower end, touched a flat shelf of rock, and so became a graceful column supporting the overhanging mosses from which it started. Another adhered to the rock all the way, and was a crystalline pilaster. The other two were free throughout the whole of their thirty feet of length, and tapered to needle points threatening the pool below. The colors in the pool were in fact borrowed from the mosses and ferns which grew in masses at the sides and upon the top of the cliff. Living in perpetual dampness, these exquisite plants flourish and become perfect examples of their kind. The trailing fern fronds were as green and as clean in outline as in summer. They sprang from beds of mosses wonderful in tints. Some were golden olive, others pale green, and still others blood red. Pressed against the upper edge of the black cliff, they were like a garland of bright flowers on the forehead of some sullen warrior.

The water did not pour into this pool from the cliff, but came to it through a narrow flume or gap in the solid rock, which had been concealed from us as we ascended the stream by the high wooded bank opposite the cliff. On reaching the edge of the pool, in the chill shadow of the black rock, we looked up the flume between narrow walls of dark gray granite, and saw, thirty feet or more beyond, another pool, into which was pouring from the left a great sheet of water. This fall, coming from a point fifty or sixty feet above us, and on the extreme left of the flume, had its side towards us ; yet, after its green waters struck the upper pool and struggled there awhile, they came through the flume as their only outlet. Clambering up the right hand or north bank, we gained a point where we could see all the details of this strange cataract.

Sabba Day Brook above the falls flows nearly due east. It strikes a rocky hillside, and is deflected to the left by a sharp curve, so that it runs due north. In this direction it has worn a sloping passage to the edge of the falls. Dropping fifty feet into a great pot-hole, it turns abruptly to the east and flows out through the flume into the green pool, past the black ledge, and then, turning slightly towards the north, hurries on from basin to rapid on its way to the intervale. Standing on a shelf of snowcovered rock overhanging the angle in the fall, we first looked up at the water leaving its level above and hurrying towards its leap, and then down at the boiling pool below and the dashing water in the flume. These falls must be beautiful in summer, with sunlight playing in the leaves, blue sky lending color to the water, and rainbow tints gleaming in the uprising spray. They were also beautiful to-day, — Christmas Day, — when the loneliness of winter was brooding over the mountains, when ice and snow mingled in the surroundings of the falls, and when the gay coloring of the summer forest was replaced by the sombre tones of leafless trees. In summer some trace of man might have jarred upon the perfect solitude of the spot, and made it seem less pure. As it was, standing in the untrodden snow, surrounded by the fog, the wild stream, the ice-sheathed rocks, I felt as one might if suffered to land for a while upon some far planet, strange to man, and consecrated to eternal cold and solitude.

We turned away reluctantly, and entered the old forest which stands between Sabba Day Brook and Swift River, a quarter of a mile to the north. The rumble of the falls grew fainter and fainter, then ceased. Blue jays flew through the treetops; a great hawk floated by above the trees; kinglets and a brown creeper lisped to us; chickadees, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and a great flock of singing siskins came in answer to our whistles; and red squirrels scolded us from their tree-strongholds. When we reached Swift River, we found it broad, still, and without a log or stones to cross upon. Having on water-tight hip-boots, I waded the stream, bearing my companion upon my shoulders. Entering a swamp on the further shore, we observed fresh hedgehog tracks. In one place the fat beast had lain down in the snow, and some of his soft quills had frozen to his bed and pulled out when he trundled his body along again. At every labored step he left the print of his body in the snow, making a track as conspicuous as a man’s. In a tangle of yew branches he had paused and nibbled bark from several stems. After following his trail a hundred yards or more, we lost it in a spruce thicket where the snow had melted.

At the extreme western end of Swift River intervale stands a hill, seven or eight hundred feet high, having long sloping lines and a pointed top. It is called Sugarloaf. Its sides are covered with as fine a growth of ancient trees as it is often one’s fortune to find in New England. As this growth includes few spruces, hemlocks, or pines, it has escaped the timber fiends. There are among its trees giant yellow birches, saffron - colored in the mist; beeches a century old, with trunks moulded into shapes suggestive of human limbs strong in muscles ; rock maples eighty or ninety feet high ; and hemlocks with coarse bark unbroken by limbs until, a hundred feet from the hillside, a mat of their interwoven branches finds the sunlight. The cultivated fields and pasture lands of the intervale are singularly free from rocks. Here and there a great boulder can be found, but it is conspicuous in its loneliness. On this hillside, however, boulders of all shapes and sizes are strewn. Most of them are about the size of a load of hay. They are covered with showy lichens and the greenest of green mosses. Selecting one at the very summit of the hill, we searched under its overhanging sides for dry leaves and twigs. Then we broke an old stump into pieces, and tore the curling bark from a prostrate birch. All this material was more or less damp, but by patience we secured a little bed of coals which soon dried the rest of our fuel, so that before long a bright blaze and a warm glow gladdened our eyes and comforted our chilled bodies. Then came our cheery Christmas dinner in the primeval forest, upon a snow-covered hillside, under the projecting face of a great rock, beneath which we sat, with a ruddy fire crackling in front of us. Never Christmas dinner went straighter to the right spot.

While we were resting and enjoying our fire, a flock of sweet-voiced pine grosbeaks Came to neighboring treetops, a white-bellied nuthatch hung head downwards from a beech trunk, and two downy woodpeckers called uneasily to each other. At last we extinguished our fire, and descended the hill. Five grouse flew noisily from the hillside. Through the trees we could see the white ice on Church’s Pond, and towards it we made our way. The pond is the last remnant of the great lake which in distant ages filled the whole of this intervale. Even now an area twenty times as large as the lake adjoins its water, and is almost level with it; being covered with sphagnum, laurel, pitcherplant, and other bog growth, and offering very uncertain footing. Reaching the pond, we circled around it on the ice, cautiously keeping close to the shore, although a yoke of oxen could probably have blundered across without danger. While we were on the lake the sunset hour passed, and a dense fog crept down upon the serrated spruce forest which borders the water. Three pine grosbeaks flew into the advancing mists, talking in gentle music to one another. One was left on a dead tree in the bog, and uttered a plaintive cry again and again. Leaving the ice, we struck across the frozen bog, nowand then breaking through the soft places, but generally finding ice or roots to sustain our weary feet. As we progressed, we gathered an armful of club-mosses and a bunch of checkerberry plants bearing their gay fruit. The fog closed in around us, and the air became chilly. Not a mountain could we see. It was a relief to strike firm soil, though it was only a few inches higher than the bog. Presently we came to the river, and for a second time I shouldered my friend and took him over dry-shod. After doing the same, a few moments later, at Sabba Day Brook, we gained the end of the intervale road, near Bumblebee’s hut. It was now growing dark, yet a mile of yellow mud still lay before us. Colors had faded; the graceful outlines of the forest were dimmed ; nothing but the martial spruces remained with us, drawn up in stiff lines beside the road.

When we reached home, the Christmas greens and checker-berries were made by our inexperienced fingers into a cross, a wreath, and a long strip for festooning. These we presented to the three-year-old Lily of the intervale, whose ideas of Christmas had been obscured by the fact that no one had given her any presents. These offerings made matters better with her, and I fancied that she pommeled her four kittens less mercilessly than usual, as she gazed at the Christmas greens, and said many times to her grandmother, “ Man dave dose to Diddy, he did.”

Frank Bolles.