Norman Thomas di Giovanni

New Hampshire Out of Season by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Mrs Kimball was feeding a family of raccoons out of her hand on the back porch the first time we saw her. We had just come down from Mt Waumbek, our second four-thousand-foot climb of the season, and were looking around for a place near the Northern Peaks where we could spend a few weeks later in the year. It was towards the end of June then. On a hike to Waumbek several weeks before, we had been unable to get beyond the neighbouring summit of Starr King. At that time - early May - on the wooded ridge that connects the two peaks, the snow was too rotten and still too deep to be crossed without snowshoes. Warblers flitted in the trees and the sun was summery, yet Waumbek, a mile away and slightly above us, remained for the time inaccessible. But now, happy with our success on this second try, we decided we ought to book a cabin for an extended stay.

Mrs K's old-fashioned cottages, announced by only one or two modest signposts, sat fairly far apart from each other on the slope of a hill a good distance back from the highway. On close inspection their simple virtues included a plain wooden floor, a single cold-water tap, an unscreened porch, a wood stove with plenty of pine slab, a rickety icebox out back, and a corner inside where you could get your own meals. It seemed a wonderful change from all the instant comforts of home. The cabins were also as neat as the woman who owned them, and the view from them was incomparable. It embraced a sweep of summits from Madison south along the ridge of the Presidential Range to the flattish hump of Franklin. In all northern New Hampshire we had never before come upon a place to stay like this one. Right off we reserved a cottage for September, the best month of the year in the White Mountains.

Labor Day, as everyone seemed to be heading south, we went north. The cabins, the Mountaineers, are strung at the foot of a hill called Boy Mountain, a few miles east of the village of Jefferson. (For supplies, the larger towns of Lancaster and Gorham and industrial Berlin are close by. But the village store still sells milk in glass bottles with the cream standing at the top.)

Our particular cottage consisted of a single room. Its walls were logs of canoe birch with the chalky-white bark still on them. These lengths had been saw-trimmed on two faces and fitted together tightly. At first I thought the bright walls were mere slabs tacked onto boards, the way up in the gable ends of the open ceiling the boards had been papered with wide strips of peeled birch bark. Because the logs stood upright, it was a week before I came to see that the little structure was a true log cabin. As I undertook a closer examination of the place, I found here and there the names of earlier guests finely pencilled on the white bark. Some had come back year after year, recording each new date under the old one. I noticed too that some part of the cottage's underpinning had sagged or rotted and had never been jacked up to level again. Accordingly, half the legs of the big bed and one end of the table had been elevated on small blocks. But in a setting where the mountains themselves were perfection enough, the fact that the cabin tilted did not seem at all improper. It was from an outsize window in the kitchen corner that you held in your eye the highest peaks in all New England, indeed, of the whole Northeast.

The Mountaineers stand on the site of an old inn, the Mt Adams, burned down some forty or so years ago. Out behind our cabin and nearly hidden in the recent growth of feathery tamaracks was the inn's carriage house, vast, empty, and leaning perilously. Abandoned apple trees grew back there too, and during our stay, signs indicated that bears came in the night to feed on fallen fruit. A hunt was on at this same time in a swamp a few miles away in Lancaster for a couple of bears that all spring and summer had been killing sheep. We have never had the luck of glimpsing a black bear in the New Hampshire mountains, and out luck did not change while we were at the Mountaineers. We did watch a long-tailed weasel at length on a mountain path one day; on another trail my wife saw a red fox; and on our last morning, as we packed, the two pet house cats we had taken with us on the trip caught a meadow jumping mouse. But these, apart from chipmunks and fairly common red squirels and a raccoon family in Mrs Kimball's kitchen, were the only mammals.

Often in the evening I went down to Mrs Kimball's for ice containers that she froze for us in her refrigerator. There were the raccoons one night, four or five of them, receiving handouts of bread and Fig Newtons in the middle of the kitchen floor. When I crouched down, the marvellous creatures came searching my hands too. As Mrs K was giving me some bread for them, one of the animals slipped behind her to tug at the big drawer in which it was necessary to keep the breadbox. I was told that the screen door had to be kept latched or the raccoons would come boldly in and raid the refrigerator.

I got handouts from Mrs Kimball too - wildlife and natural history magazines to take back to our cottage, and a thick history of Lancaster, where she was born. But best were her memories of earlier days.

She is a straight-standing white-haired woman, but an outdoors-woman and therefore of an indeterminate age. Many times while she spoke she broke off suddenly and went rummaging through albums and boxes of old photographs for a snapshot or two that would cap her words. She showed me a number of poses of Gipsy and Cinderella, black bears she and her late husband had raised from cubs. In the old carriage house I had seen their now unused cage with the two names inscribed on the decorated front. When grown, one of the bears had gone to Franklin Park, in Boston; the other, in captivity in the little zoo at Crawford Notch, had been shot in the pandemonium following another bear's fatal attack on a keeper. There was a further old snap of Mr K reading the evening paper in the living room, with a full-grown deer curled up asleep on the rug at his feet. Like the bears, this animal had been brought to the Kimballs by a local game warden after its parents had been gunned by hunters.

The camera had pictured dozens of events in their lives - unusual snows that piled to the roof eaves, a dummy deer that practical-joking Mr K had set out and that had been peppered with bullets by over-eager deerslayers. But the most impressive series of pictures were those of the original Mountaineer, a large story-and-a-half log structure the Kimballs had built many years before on an acre of wilderness high on the flank of Starr King. Mr K had trimmed and milled the logs with saws he erected up there himself, backpacking and dragging behind an old horse all his own home-made machinery. The inside was spacious, with large corner windows and it boasted a great round table that one yellowing photo showed spread with a linen cloth. Mr K had even tapped a nearby stream so that the place had an indoor toilet, and for a few seasons the couple wintered there, snowshoeing down to the village for supplies once or twice a week. It was later on, after the war, that Mr K set up his saws again and built the present Mountaineer cabins. Both Kimballs served terms in the state legislature, in Concord.

September in the mountains: warm sunny days and nights a snap of cold; sharp light and distant clarity. Each morning the hillsides bloomed in a new pattern of changing colours: green seemed to drain away, the different birches became a luminous yellow, the maples an incandescent red. Foliage routes of exceptional interest were marked out along the highways.

Evenings after dark, with the loan of Mrs K's FM radio, we tuned in to the local station transmitting from the top of Mt Washington, listening for a guide to the next day's weather. If you are planning to take to the heights, this is essential, though you have also to develop a sense of weather patterns for yourself. We found we could be fogbound at our cabin while a few miles away, in Pinkham Notch, there might be sunshine. And one afternoon, after descending from Mt Moriah, where there had been a strong cold blow and we'd bundled up with gloves and hats and high-necked sweaters, the couple in the neighbouring cabin reported they had at the same time gone to the top of Washington - over 2000 feet higher - in shirt-sleeves.

We did a lot of mountain walking (it cannot, to use a mountaineering term strictly, be called climbing), and we got to the summit of a number of 4000-footers. A taste for high places, I suppose like all the fine tastes, is acquired. The day we stood on the wonderful peak of Adams, our heads over 5800 feet in the air, seemed a climax of all our hiking days. Adams is a summit that might be described in a child's book. The mountain falls away from you immediately on all sides, and but one person at a time can stand at the very top. When we reached it on our ascent the entire sky was a dazzling cloudless blue, and around us the great heap of rocks that form the summit cone were the colour of the heart of a lime. We sank down to rest and eat lunch out of the wind in a grassy hollow among the boulders. Our faces were towards Washington, and we looked out over the glacial cirque called the Great Gulf, watching red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks on migration as they wheeled round and round in this huge bowl. Such times are impressed on the mind for ever.

But it is good to look upon the mountains from below as well. On a clear day there's a lot of pleasure in a drive along the sparkling Androscoggin, which the Brown Company no longer jams with pulpwood logs, with the profile of the rugged Mahoosuc Range on one hand and the blue bulk of the Presidentials before you. A fine lowland walk is the New Hampshire Audubon Society's boggy Pondicherry Refuge, located a couple of miles along the railway tracks from the old Jefferson station at Meadows. Here not only is the birdlife remarkable, but the partially enclosing sweep of four or five distant ranges has always struck me as one of the finest views in the moutains.

Returning to the Mountaineers after a good walk could be memorable too. Pleasantly exhausted, I liked to sprawl on our front step sipping a beer and look out over a field of maize and off up the flanks of Jefferson. The line of vision directly up the Ravine of the Castles made it seem like peering into a throat. Often we set up a telescope on the grass and scanned the Northern Peaks trying to catch late-afternoon hikers as they reached the summits of Adams or Madison. You could see them pause in a triumphant moment on the topmost pile of Adams, then step down for their companions. All but one of the minor summits of Adams could be picked out in the scope, as well as the tremendous stack of rock marking Thunderstorm Junction and the white-topped cairns above tree-line on Lowe's Path. And as if on silent film, a waterfall the eye alone could not see gushed and tumbled somewhere into the ravine below Edmands Col. Shortly the falls vanished in purple darkness and the col darkened and the last yellow light lingered on the peaks. Then night.

We went back to the mountains a couple more times after we left the Mountaineers. It was the end of October, later than we had ever before attempted any hiking. Now the deciduous trees were bare, and from the heights the naked trunks were like sticks or the strokes of an etching, casting shadows on the forest floor below the line of conifers. On our last time out, there was a trace of snow and ice on the ridge trail over the Franconia Range, and when we reached the summit of Lincoln we had to share it with a pair of snow buntings. A fitting end to the season - to our season - that seemed. Next throughout the whole north country would come two small armies - the hunters, then the skiers.

First published, in slightly different form, in The Atlantic, May 1966.

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