I just finished reading We Took To The Woods, a book I’d been wanting to read for some time before finally picking up a copy at my library. With a title like this, and my general interest in only backpacking, you’d expect it to be a through-hike narrative or something of the sort, but those types of stories don’t often grab me. This is an account of life deep in the Maine woods in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when Maine was still mostly a frontier land, barely settled and so remote that even the wildernesses of today look metropolitan by comparison.
There’s something comforting and home-like about the way the book is written– early 20th century colloquial, rambling, drifting off onto lovely stories that have little to do with each chapter’s theme. It reminds me of some of the things I love about my home (yes, I now live in New Hampshire, but Maine is still home). It reminds me of how wild the state suddenly becomes as soon as you drift inland and north past the tourist traps and resort towns. Everything feels so familiar.
Maybe it’s because Louise and Ralph, the writer and her husband, remind me so much of Rose and Chuck, the managers of AMC’s Little Lyford Pond Camp, where I worked for four unforgettable months after my Appalachian Trail through-hike. Or, more accurately, the setting of Louise’s story reminds me of Little Lyford. While at Little Lyford, we were cut off from automobile access by miles of snowy forest, the only access coming from a long drive on semi-plowed logging roads, then another long haul on snowmobiles. For Louise and Ralph it was a trip across one of western Maine’s lakes, even deeper in the wilderness, to a long dirt road to the tiny village of Upton.
|Little Lyford Ponds below White Cap Mountain. See Katahdin in the horizon?|
There were only half a dozen of us in full-time residence at Little Lyford that winter, though well over a hundred visitors came through– that is, after all, the AMC lodging business. Occasionally we would receive visits from one or two of the crew at the other camps in the area, though not often since they were a twenty-mile round trip snowmobile ride away, and had plenty of work to do at their own camps. With such a small community, I had a ton of time for being alone and reflecting on where my life was going at the time. Even with sixty to eighty hours of work a week, at the end of the day I was still deep in the thickest wilderness the east coast has to offer.
There are a few things about the place that I love and miss dearly. One of them was being able to snowshoe across the Ponds with a view of the snow-covered Mount Baker, then up the West Branch of the Pleasant River a short way, then into the woods to bushwhack up Gulf Hagas Mountain toward the Appalachian Trail in the 100 Mile Wilderness. I could be certain that I’d never find another human track once I started out on those bushwhacks, even though I often crossed or walked along old, abandoned logging roads.
One day, while wandering far from camp, I walked two miles up a straight logging road on the side of Gulf Hagas Mountain, turned around, and saw my footprints stretching far off into the distance. The Barren-Chairback range stood beyond my path, Gulf Hagas and Long Pond invisible in the forest between. I’ve never felt more isolated or in love with the great forest around me. I look at the photo of that view almost every day that I’m at my computer (hooray, desktop backgrounds). The single track of footprints growing tiny in the distance reminds me of everything I love about life, and especially hiking and being alone in the wilderness. At the time, it reminded me of just how alone I was right there, and how hard it is to actually get that secluded.
Just before finishing We Took To The Woods, I got curious about the author and her family. The internet is a magical thing when it comes to satisfying curiosities like this. It wasn’t surprising to hear that she had died at the ripe old age of 88 while I was still running around my yard in rural Maine with wooden swords and reading comic books instead of books like hers. I was dismayed to learn that her husband, an amusing and inventive character, died only a few years after the book was published. There’s something sad about knowing that a character will soon meet his end, when the book he’s in makes him seem so immediate and alive. But I was also happy to find this snippet, an uplifting essay by Louise from later on in her life.
My ideal is not to live secluded in the deep woods like I did at Little Lyford, or like Louise did at Pond-in-the-River, but there’s something wonderful about escaping to that sort of life for a little while from time to time. Having experienced several levels of isolation in the wilderness, I’ve come to appreciate everything from the small social circles of hikers in remote campsites to the full remoteness of the deep winter in northern Maine. And even though I prefer the former most of the time, I always look back to the latter with more fondness.